As a budding botanist snooping through my mother’s garden, I was no respecter of flower types. One blossom was as fascinating as another, and so I plucked and dissected spring tulips as casually as I later did volunteer daisies. While I was busily examining a tulip’s black heart, I didn’t know I was trifling with the stuff by which fortunes have been made and destroyed.
After tulips were introduced in Europe in the mid-1500s, their scarce supply occasionally inspired buying frenzies during which prices would rise to astronomical sums. In Holland, during the famous “tulipomania” craze from 1634 to 1637, a single rare bulb fetched the equivalent of $135,000. Today tulips are mass-produced, widely available, and reasonably priced, yet tulip blossoms are no less a treasure in the garden and the vase.
Tulips are hardy, spring-flowering, bulbous perennials native to well-drained hills and slopes, mostly in Central Asia. These members of the lily family, or Liliaceae, have slightly fleshy, linear to broadly strap-shaped leaves that typically hug a single branchless stalk crowned by a cup- to urn-shaped, six-petaled blossom. (Technically, the petals are tepals–floral parts that cannot clearly be distinguished as either petals or sepals.) A few tulip types produce more than one flower per stem and there are also multipetaled varieties.
Especially well suited to the cutting garden are the many long-stemmed modern hybrids, most of which are believed to have as a common ancestor the dull crimson Tulipa gesneriana, native to Asia Minor and eastern Europe. From such modest beginnings, tulip blossoms now come in a remarkably wide range of colors, from the purest white and pastels to primaries and nearly black, excluding true blue. Bicolored flowers may boast streaked or flame like patterns, contrasting stripes and edges, or a dark heart. Forms now include the regal lily-flowered tulips, with pointed, reflexed tepal tips; egg-shaped cottage types; ruffled parrots; and fluffy peony-flowered tulips. Stem heights range from 12 to 30 inches, each topped by a one-and-one-half- to four-inch-tall blossom.
For the best blossoms and longest productive bulb life, prepare a spot for tulips in a sunny, well-drained area that gets a little afternoon shade. Dig the soil to a depth of about one foot, loosening and amending it if necessary by adding humus and bonemeal (roughly one ounce per square foot) or bulb fertilizer (according to manufacturer directions). Choose large (for the variety), firm, fat bulbs, free from soft spots, mold, bruises, and cuts. Their papery tunics need not be entire. Then, in mid-October to mid-November (earlier in northern regions, later in the South), or any time before the soil freezes, set the bulbs to tip up about eight inches deep and five inches apart. This depth discourages bulb multiplication and subsequent weakening and places the bulbs out of the way of more shallowly rooted companion plants.) Tamp the soil and water in well. Label groupings by the varietal name. Mulch in cold climates. In areas where burrowing rodents are a threat, protect bulbs by planting them in wire-mesh baskets.
You can maintain established tulips by removing mulch and fertilizing with low-nitrogen bulb food in the spring just as the shoots emerge. Water deeply once a week during dry spells. Fertilize again in early fall. Remove faded flowers, but let the foliage dry completely before removing. Should you choose to transplant the bulbs, lift them after the foliage has completely dried, clean them, sort to size, and store in a cool, dry, well-aerated spot until fall planting.
For tulip devotees, the blossoms’ big seasonal splash makes up for the bulbs’ lack of longevity. The fact is, in most regions tulip hybrids won’t settle in permanently and multiply like daffodils. Often the hybrids will perform well for one to three years before their shrinking flowers and foliage warrant replacement. The bulbs can be left in place in the garden for as long as they are productive (the least work-intensive approach and my personal preference) or lifted and either discarded or eventually transplanted to make way for other flowering plants. Some gardeners grow new tulip bulbs in formal beds or borders for the first showy year, then replant the bulbs in inconspicuous cutting beds for as long as the bulbs produce usable blossoms.
Tulips require an annual warm-cool-warm temperature sequence to bloom, and so gardeners in mild-winter areas need to plant precooled bulbs (available from some specialty suppliers) or store bulbs in the refrigerator for eight to 10 weeks before planting. (Be sure to remove all fruit from the refrigerator since the ethylene gas produced by ripening fruit can inhibit bulb bloom.) Also, because cold temperatures are necessary for stem elongation, don’t be too disappointed if your warm-region garden produces tulips with shorter stems than cultural descriptions suggest.
To create a cohesive color scheme, repeat tulip colors in companion plants when possible. Tried-and-true pairings include the Darwin tulip ‘Golden Apeldoorn’ with golden Alyssum Montana or golden pansies blotched with red; the soft pink peony tulip ‘Angelique’ with deep pink Phlox subulata; and the lily-flowered ‘White Triumphator’ with silvery Stachys byzantine.
Tulip vase life varies greatly by cultivar. Once you find varieties that perform well for you as cut flowers, stick with them. Though the fragrance is not a trait commonly associated with tulips, you may find that a fragrance you barely noticed in the garden is more pronounced in a warm room. The following are especially recommended for good flower substance and long vase life.
For early spring blossoms, look for single early cultivars such as ‘Bellona’, with golden yellow, fragrant flowers on 16-inch stems. Other early bloomers include the fluffy, double early ‘Monte Carlo’ in yellow, and pale pink ‘Peach Blossom’, both approximately 12 to 16 inches tall.
For mid spring harvest, Triumph tulips are an excellent choice. This class produces single-flowered blossoms on sturdy stems up to 20 inches and includes the fragrant ‘Apricot Beauty’, deep purple ‘Attila’, pink ‘Don Quichotte’, and ‘Sorbet’, a creamy white flamed with brilliant red. Many of the Darwin tulips, known for their clear, glowing colors and strong, 24-inch stems, also make good midseason cuts. Among the best known are red ‘Apeldoorn’ and ‘Golden Apeldoorn’.
Late-season bloomers include other Darwins, such as the bicolored ‘Sweet Harmony’, in medium yellow edged in white, as well as tulips from several divisions known for their dramatic flower form. Seek out warm-toned cottage tulips with long, flexible stems, such as the yellow ‘Mrs. John T. Scheepers’ and salmon-pink ‘Rosy Wings’, or the lily-flowered tulips, including the snowy ‘White Triumphator’, primrose yellow ‘West Point’, and the red and especially long-lived ‘Aladdin’, each up to 24 inches. Novel flower shapes are also offered by the fringed tulips, with their finely laminated tepal edges. Examples include the fragrant blue-lavender ‘Blue Heron’ and dark red ‘Burgundy Lace’, both up to 30 inches, and the viridiflora tulips, which are marked with greenish flames, such as the pink-and-green ‘Groenland’, up to 26 inches. Peony-flowered tulips are well represented by the soft pink ‘Angelique’ and classic white ‘Mount Tacoma’, both to 20 inches. Among my favorite parrot tulips, with their deeply waved tepal edges, are the crimson and brilliant yellow ‘Flaming Parrot’, up to 28 inches, the deep lilac ‘Blue Parrot’, red and white ‘Estella Rijnveld’, and pink and green ‘Fantasy’, all on stems up to 20 inches. (Protect the large-flowered parrot tulips from wind.)
Tulips speak so eloquently for themselves that they don’t need much fussing with in the vase. Place a generous armful of a single cultivar in a clear glass vase or accompany a few blossoms with a bare or just-budding tree or shrub branch. Tulips are authentic additions to many period arrangements and also act as effective color blocks in large, mixed, spring bouquets. Try using a few tulip plants intact that is, blossom, stem, rinsed bulbs, roots, and all in arrangements with sedums and foliage in a low dish. (Anchor root tips and bulbs in moist, moss-covered sand.)
If carefully selected and properly cared for, cut tulips can open over a three or four day period and remain fresh up to an additional seven days. Be mindful that cut tulips are not static: Blossoms bend toward light sources and may expand in size up to 50 percent, while stems may elongate an additional three inches. Allow for this kinetic character in arrangements by nestling them deeper than necessary into the container and giving them ample room for the opening.