Tulips started as an unknown number of individual species and have been the subject of unusually intense selective breeding and selection for at least 400 years. The essence of the effort is to arrive at as many different colors, flower forms, growth habits and maturity dates as possible. The centuries of labor have yielded incredible diversity.
Most of the tulip hybrids can be classified into one of the standard types which are shown here:
Species tulips were naturally occurring before humans ever cultivated the flowers. In horticulture, “species” in this context means the wild types themselves, as well as improvements based upon selections made within a single species. They tend to be smaller-flowered than modern hybrid types, on smaller plants, and of the more limited color range typically to be found within a single species.
It may sound like these drawbacks would limit their value in the garden, but it isn't so! Species types tend to be vigorous, often carrying many blooms at once. The flowers, though smaller, are of course more natural looking, being usually very delicately put together. Their colors, however, are often as brilliant as tulips can be! The chaste flowers are excellent in rock gardens, as the edge of ornamental borders of all persuasions, in containers, and anywhere their miniature beauty can be savored.
Species types are often more permanent than their overblown descendants—they are more apt to endure and multiply for many years when grown in good conditions. As a bonus, some are even fragrant!
This true Broken Tulip is a relative newcomer, dating back only about 100 years. The color breaking virus is in full force in this variety. The flowers start out a buttery yellow and rose, and gradually transform into large, extravagantly ruffled blooms of deep royal purple and creamy white.
Many fanciers feel that no other class offers the subtlety and richness of the markings of the true Broken Tulips, because only true Broken Tulips can deliver blooms with intermediate tones between the colors (Rembrandt types match the streaking in a general way, but there can be no blending of colors along the margins.)
Insulinde reaches 16 inches in height, and blooms late in the tulip season.
This Species tulip, Tulipa sylvestris, blooms very early in the tulip season. It is unfazed by the changeable, often-cold weather prevalent at this time of year. Each nodding flower describes a perfect, six-pointed star in bright golden yellow. The plants make several flowers per 10-inch stem, unlike the more modern types. Sweet fragrance makes this variety even more charming!
“Sylvestris” means “of the woodland”, and this species hails from forest glades over a wide area, from the Iberian Peninsula to Siberia. It multiplies freely in the garden, both by bulb offsets and occasionally by seed. It has naturalized in some areas.
‘Black Parrot’ Tulip
Parrot tulips are fairly new in the tulip world, having been perfected only from about 1930 on. They are some of the most beautiful types, however, with their curiously twisted petals sporting intricately feathered and fringed margins. A few are even fragrant!
Black Parrot was one of the earliest parrot types, and was released in 1937. The deep-amethyst blooms appear late in the tulip season, atop 18- to 20-inch stems. All parrot types make superb cut flowers.
‘Lilac Perfection’ Tulip
Late double-flowering tulips are a newer class, and most of the breeding work was done on them in the 20th century. This Late Double type blooms late in the season, and the flowers are exceptionally long-lasting.
The richly double, lavender blooms open slowly into 4-inch wide stunners that resemble peony flowers. With a stem length of some 20 inches, they make a splendid cut flower; but they're equally at home in massed plantings. Lilac Perfection was developed prior to 1950.
‘Princess Irene’ Tulip
The Triumph class tulip has what many gardeners have come to regard as the tulip's classic flower form—upright petals describing an ovoid or teardrop shape. Princess Irene combines sturdiness of blooms with unbelievable art-shade coloration.
Princess Irene, released in 1949, blooms about the middle of the tulip season, atop strong 14-inch stems. Triumph tulips are mostly a 20th century innovation, and are one of the most important tulip classes in today's gardens. The Triumph class offers every available tulip color and is considered the best for winter forcing (growing and blooming indoors).
Elongated, narrow and pointed petals characterize this species tulip (Tulipa acuminata). The searing tones of gold and scarlet give the blooms a tropical appearance, whether massed in the garden or grown as a single, focal-point specimen or container plant. It's a species, yes, but a species rarely found in the wild.
The Acuminata was first documented in 1813, but it's believed to be a last holdover from the much earlier “Tulip Days” of the Ottoman Empire. The early to mid-season blooms are held aloft on 12- to 18-inch stems that may need a little support in rough weather.
Color break virus
An overwhelmingly important factor in the Tulipomania craze was the Broken Tulips. These were so-called because the color of a known variety would suddenly “break” into two or more colors. The result could be dramatic striping, streaking and feathering in vibrant colors, quite unlike anything Europeans had seen. The most valuable tulips of all were these “Broken Tulips.”
What horticulturists of the time couldn't know was that the phantasmagorical stripes were caused by virus. The virus now called tulip break virus changes processes within the flower, causing the pigmentation within the petals to segregate into component colors—sometimes fading, other times amplified. The result is amazing, but it comes at a price: The virus saps the strength of the plant, reducing its lifespan and slowing down its multiplication. This latter fact kept the Tulipomania-era varieties in unnaturally short supply, and has led to the complete extinction of most of the Tuliopmania cultivars.
Eventually the full results of infection became apparent and Dutch authorities began to discourage the propagation of affected plants. Today, most striped tulips are the result of careful breeding, not infection with color break virus; these types are the Rembrandt class, so named to evoke association with the Dutch masters, who often chose Broken Tulips for their subject. True Broken tulips are thus very rare and therefore expensive. Aficionados of the type say that there are subtle qualities unique to true Broken Tulips that Rembrandt types cannot match.
Other fall-planted bulbs
Tulips are, to many, the quintessence of the spring garden—but there are many other fall-planted species.
Crocus and Snowdrops are among the earliest blooming types, often forcing their way up through late snow; crocus comes in a range of jewel tones and naturalizes easily.
Daffodils and narcissus come next, and their color range has been extended from yellow and white to include salmon-pinks and oranges. They come in a range of flower types and include multi-floral and fully double forms.
Then there are the hyacinths, with their stems covered in tiny, star-shaped, lily-like flowers. The individual blooms may be small but the heady fragrance they produce is incredibly potent—one or two stems fill a room with fragrance—the true essence of spring!
Growing Tulips is Easy
Tulips are incredibly easy to grow. The trick is simply to plant the dormant bulbs in autumn for brilliant blooms the following spring.
Tulips need good drainage and full sun. They also need a winter's chill to initiate bud and root formation. Plant them in fall or early winter before the ground freezes. Work the tulip bed thoroughly, amending with plenty of compost and bonemeal. (Actually, tulips will bloom the first spring after planting even in very poor soil, living off energy stored within the bulb. But if you want repeat bloom, growing them on good garden soil is the way to go.) Many gardeners like to add some bonemeal to the soil at planting time, to supply plenty of phosphorous, which tulip plants need in abundance.
Set the bulbs into the finished planting bed, following package recommendations. Tulips are typically planted 6 to 8 inches deep; shallow planting may inhibit offset formation and multiplication. Mulch if desired and leave the bed alone until the following spring.
As winter begins to get mild, the first blue-green tulip shoots emerge, often between vestigial pockets of snow. As the days begin to warm the plants grow, and the stem peeps out from the ground. The stem lengthens and the bud enlarges as the weather continues to warm and, at the appointed time, the mature flower bud pops open, revealing the colors and textures hitherto hidden within.
Once the flowers have spent their glory, allowing the plants to complete their life-cycle makes bloom next spring a possibility. Don't cut off the leaves—these will dry up naturally in early summer, when the plants finally go dormant. Instead, tend your tulip plants faithfully, keeping up adequate soil moisture and controlling competition from weeds. Refreshing the mulch with some mature compost accomplishes this and feeds the plant as well.
Strong, well-developed bulbs will re-bloom faithfully, and, in favorable conditions, yield a steady increase in the planting.
Southern gardeners should take note that without a good winter chill, the tulips are unlikely to bloom well. Gardeners in areas warmer than about USDA Zone 7 will need to replant fresh bulbs each autumn. These gardeners sometimes give the bulbs an artificial chill in the fridge prior to planting outdoors.
Randel A. Agrella has overseen rare seed production at Baker Creek Seed Company since 2005. He writes and lectures extensively, owns and operates abundantacres.net, which grows and ships strictly heirloom veggie starts, and has recently relocated to Maine. You can follow the development of his new farm, Parsnippity Farm, on Facebook.