Species Tulips

candlestick tulip

Gary Westlake


In the spring, frequently, we get questions from people who wonder if they can plant the tulips that they forgot to plant the previous fall. The answer I am afraid is no since tulips need the winter to develop roots and set flowers. Fortunately, for us procrastinators, there is a solution. We can plant species tulips. These are the tulips from which all the modern tulips were derived, and are native to eastern Europe and western Asia. They are not short-lived perennials like their relatives, the hybrid tulips. There are a number of varieties of very beautiful species tulips that just keep expanding and that put on a dazzling show each spring. This means you donít have to keep planting them every fall.

In the 1590ís a Dutch horticulturist, Carolus Clusius began breeding tulips that he got from a friend from Turkey. He offered them for sale at very expensive prices. They didnít sell well but they were stolen from his garden. Tulips steadily gained in popularity as breeders continued to develop new varieties, until 1637 when the demand for more exotic varieties reached a fever peak. It was a symbol of wealth and status to have the rarest varieties. Tulips were traded several times for exorbitant sums even before they were dug from the ground. People made fortunes speculating in bulbs. After the inevitable crash in value, the government put controls on trading, but not before a major industry was formed that continues to this day in the Netherlands. It is now known that some of the early more exotic varieties of tulips with fringes and stripes were actually caused by diseases. Since then, hybridizers have been able to produce varieties with a similar look but stable genetically. Now the Netherlands produces tulips with a huge array of shapes, colours and blooming periods. Today approximately 9 billion bulbs are distributed world wide Ė thatís almost enough for 2 bulbs for every person on the planet.

The tulip growers work the fields deeply in winter and manure in early spring. Often an additional crop of vegetables is grown on the same fields as long as it is off by August. In Late September they plant bulbs four inches apart, four inches deep and mulch with straw to prevent wind erosion. In spring they cut off the flower heads and dig the new bulbs once they have matured. You only get the grand display from these hybrid tulips because, early in their lives, they lived this pampered life in the Netherlands. Once you plant them in your garden, their growth tends to go down hill after a year or so and you find yourself wanting to get fresh ones from the growers. When you think of it, these growers have worked out a clever way to keep getting new business.

Here is my suggestion. Plant a few hybrid tulips each year as annuals. They are a must for any garden and provide you with a great display of early spring colour. But in addition, each year plant a few species tulips. They wonít be as tall, nor have as large flowers, but over time, they will form large clumps of strikingly colourful flowers.

There are several different species tulips. One of the easiest is Tulipa tarda that has multiple yellow flowers with white tips. T. linifolia has brilliant red flowers. T. polychroma is fragrant and has white flowers with yellow centres. T. clusiana is white and red and the very beautiful variety T. clusiana var. Chrisantha is red and yellow. There are many more to choose from. Just be sure that they are grown and not dug from the wild.

You plant species tulips in the fall, much as you would their hybrid cousins. Keep in mind that since they are perennial, you need to find a place where you donít have to disturb them too often. You need to be able to let the leaves mature, so find a place where other plants will hide the foliage later in the spring when they are looking a little tired. They like good drainage and full sun and are good candidates for rock gardens. Give them a bit of bone meal to start them off well, and plant them 10-15 cm deep. They should be placed about 2-6 inches apart and given a good watering. They will self-seed, not like the hybrids that are mostly sterile, but the best way to propagate species tulips is to lift and separate the offset bulbs. After flowering it is probably wise to deadhead them to force the growth into the bulbs. Once the leaves start dying off, you can cut them too.

The flowers will close at night, in the early morning and on cloudy days, then open when the sun comes out. For the ones with a different colour on the inside, itís like having two different flowers.

One additional advantage of not having to plant species tulips each year is the fact that they are less likely to be taken by squirrels. Those pesky squirrels seem to have a knack for finding that just dug soil and pulling out your bulbs.

So when you are finished reading the newspaper, get right up and go out to plant your tulips. They will do you no good sitting in the bag. You will be glad you did come spring, and you will be happier you did for many springs to come, if you plant species tulips as well.