When I first started gardening in the Texas Panhandle, I purchased two packages of tulips from Noel's Nursery (where SteinMart is now), 'Apeldoorn' (red) and 'Golden Apeldoorn' (bright golden yellow), 10 to a package, two standard Darwin Hybrid varieties. There wasn't a large selection available at the time. I planted them along an east facing fence, where they reliably bloomed every year for 30 years, eventually diminishing. I'm sure my constant digging around them and making a general nuisance of myself contributed to their decline; I speared not a few bulbs. I didn't know the significance of the Darwin Hybrid tulips, or Apeldoorn, thinking of them more like Red Delicious and Golden Delicious Apples – big, tasty and popular.
In time, I thought of them as my “half antique flowers” as I had read somewhere an object becomes an antique after 50 years. They also declined, in part, from the tulip breaking virus. In a few short years they “broke” one by one, streaks of red in the Golden Apeldoorn, mostly as I recall. It's all a blur whether the red Appeldoorn streaked yellow or the Golden Apeldoorn streaked red. And again, at that time, I didn't know what had caused it until I did some research. I thought it novel. None of these breaks produced a new tulip that anyone would trade a house for. I'm surprised how long the tulips persisted over the years, especially without lifting and dividing the offsets.
When I would ask fellow gardeners if they grew tulips, I would hear their frustration, that they did not, because they rarely came back. I was perplexed. I was aware the tulips' origin was in a hot, dry and inhospitable climate such as our own (I thought). Confusing still was the point that tulips came from the Netherlands, and is the national flower of The Netherlands, Turkey and Iran. So my quandary only increased the more I thought about tulips. It was high time for a little research. Knowing a little about the tulip's variability and classifications will help one decide which species or cultivar is best for ones garden.
About Tulips and Its Origin
Tulips originate from two centers of diversity, the first and largest is in Central Asia, more correctly referred to as Middle Asia, between the Pamir Alai Mountains in the southwest to the Tien Shan Mountain range that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, south of the city of Almaty and east of Tashkent (in Uzbekistan) and into the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang. From this central region they spread as far north as the Altai Mountains of northwestern China, Mongolia and southern Siberia; southeast into the Fergana Valley, south and southwest into to the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan and Pakistan, then further west in a wide swath along the borders of Turkmenistan and Iran. Ever westward, a few species thrive in western Iran and eastern Turkey.
The secondary center of diversity joins with them in the Caucasus Mountains through Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. From this secondary center, they spread into Crimea, Turkey and Crete. Eventually tulips spread naturally into North Africa, finally naturalizing throughout the European Mediterranean region. With the introduction of tulips into Europe in 1554, over the centuries, a few varieties have naturalized throughout northern and western Europe, even into Scandinavia and Great Britain.
Tulips, the wildflower, grows carefree in many environments and microclimates as high as 11,000 feet, in sub-alpine conditions, along pleasant rocky hills and slopes, on the steppes, and a few at the edges of deserts. Nearly all of them grow in climates with winter and spring rainfall and dry, baking summers, and slightly alkaline soil. In some areas, only one tulip species is prevalent, in others, there will be several. Some tulip species are better suited to high, cold and dry, others to rocky, grassy slopes at lower elevations of 300 - 7000 ft., and still others to lower, grassy, flatter and hotter conditions. The majority of tulip species can be found in the middle ground of lower slopes and hills. Nearly all tulips thrive better in full sun. (Wilford, Tulips, p. 13-15.)
Tulips are geophytes, plants with leaves that die back annually to an underground bulb, corm, tuber or rhizome. A geophyte is one of nature's ways of effectively surviving with the climate handed them. Winter rains instigates root growth, spring rains enables the sprouting and growing of foliage, stem and flower, and as the flower and leaves die, nutrients return underground. With sufficient moisture and nutrients, the bulb and next years flower will regrow and wait underground. A period of cold coupled and followed by moisture trigger the new year's growth. The size of the bulbs, and whether or not the bulb has hairs, the tunic and the time of flowering vary among the tulip species.
Tulips multiply by seed, offsets or stolons. It takes from 4-7 years to produce a mature plant that flowers from seed. Offsets will generally produce a flower in one to two years. Certain tulip species are stoloniferous and are referred to as good naturalizers.
If tulips aren't planted deep enough, they will drop down deeper themselves to find the right growing depth. The general rule of thumb in planting bulbs is to plant to three times the length of the bulbs. Line three bulbs together head to toe and measure. Dig a hole that depth and plant. If the bulbs are small, plant a little deeper than 3X's, at least 4-5 inches deep.
The tulip flower is composed of six colorful tepals (normally called petals, but in the case of the tulip, called tepals because is no clear distinction between sepals and petals), three outer and three inner tepals, none of them connected to each other; the outer tepals are narrower than the inner tepals. Sometimes the backs of the outer tepals are stained a different color from the inside of the tepal. An example of this is Tulipa cluisiana and its cultivars. The tepal shapes vary a great deal, for instance, some are ovate, lanceolate, obovate or elliptic. The tepals surround six stamens and a center ovary. The stamens are either glabrous (smooth, hairless) or with tiny hairs over some part of them. Stamens and ovaries can be different colored and come in different lengths from species to species, adding enjoyment when peering inside the flower.
The shape of the flower can be bowl shaped, with a rounded base or funnel shaped, with a narrow base and opening wide like a star. Flower color varies across the genus from red, yellow, orange, white, cream, brownish-red, and shades of pink, lilac and purple. Even within a species, both red and white species have yellow forms. In most species, at the inside base of the flower is a basal blotch that contrasts with the color of the rest of the flower. Sometimes the blotch is rimmed with white or yellow. The shape, number and color of leaves and stem lengths and widths varies as does the placement of leaves on the stem from species to species. (Wilford, Tulips, p. 28-31.)
Gardening With Botanic Tulips*
With all the variability of color, size and shape of flowers, leaves and stems, there are quite a few choices available for the gardener who chooses wildflower species instead of or in addition to hybrid tulips.
The wild tulips, also called species or botanic tulips, are easy to grow as long as a few needs are met. The chief need is good draining soil. Tulips planted in compacted clay soil will most often rot during the summer in most gardener's well watered gardens.
The Turks have known for centuries what it takes to grow tulips. Sheikh Mehmet Lalezari writing during the reign of Sultan Aḥmad III (1703-30), wrote a guide to growing tulips, called The Balance of Blossoms: “One must pay careful attention to the soil in which you plant your tulips," the author begins. His advice continues: “don't use clay soil; it won't drain and the bulbs will rot. Dig rich black soil from the lower southern slopes of a nearby hill and put it through a sieve with holes no bigger than a hazelnut. Then mix it with an equal part of sand or gravel.” Lalezari changed his name to reflect his love of tulips, Lalezari meaning Golden Tulip. (Mandaville.)
One of the most forgiving botanic tulips for moist conditions is Tulipa sprengeri, which has naturalized over Great Britain and Northern Europe. This is an ideal tulip to plant near the outside rim of tree canopies, where lawn watering is the greatest. T. sprengeri prefers a moister soil. Other species that survive well with some summer moisture and clay soil are T. humilis, T. tarda and T. sylvestris. Doubtless, the better the drainage, the happier the tulips will be.
Classifications of Botanic Tulips
New discoveries are still being made, and changes in classification are always underway, moving plants from one subgenus to another, or from a species to cultivar status. It is generally estimated to be about 120 species of tulips. One recent source identifies 81 species, many species having been relugated to subspecies status ("Molecular Phylogenetic Analysis of Tulipa".) The genus Tulipa is in the Liliaceae family. Tulipa is split into two subgenus, several sections within each subgenus, composed of species and subspecies with different characteristics. Occasionally, a species is moved out of Tulipa, into a new different genus, such as Amana, or from another genus to Tulipa, as was in the case of T. orithyia. There is a classification called Neo-tulipae, (new tulips) a term that has been used “to identify the naturalized tulips of Europe that have been described as species but are derived from escapes from cultivation.” Taxonomists still don't quite know how to classify Neo-tulipae, but they exist, and are sometimes offered for sale. (Wilford, p. 62-73.) (The Molecular Phylogenetic Analysis of Tulipa, published in 2013, divides Tulipa into three subgenuses, Tulipa, Eriostemones, and Orithyia.)
Below are listed most of the botanic species one is most often likely to see in catalogs or on the web for purchase. Many of these species have earned RHS Award of Garden Merit for their beauty, longevity and multiplying ability.
Subgenus Tulipa -- The flowers of tulips listed in this section are primarily red or yellow, bowl shaped with a rounded base. They have glabrous filaments all of the same length.
Section Tulipa – papery tunics with a few hairs, flowers generally red with a black basal blotch margined with yellow, usually found growing wild in Europe, Turkey, the Caucasus Mountains and parts of central Asia.
T. gesneriana, I only list this here, as it is the type for the species, even though experts are unsure which tulip Linnaeus used. Most garden tulips are derived from this species, with some of the selections naturalizing in Europe (Neo-tulipae). You may not ever find this listed for sale.
T. schrenkii, (Photo at right) about 4 inches tall with leaves linear-lanceolate to oblong about an ½ wide, colors in the wild are variable shades of red, pink an yellow. The tulip sold under this name has scarlet tepals edged in orange-yellow.
Section Tulipanum – dense layer of woolly hairs lining the bulb tunic, flowers generally red with a black basal blotch margined with yellow, usually found growing wild in Europe, Turkey, the Caucasus Mountains, Middle East, into Iran and Central Asia.
T. praecox, a broad leaved tulip to 3 ½ inches wide with a broad flower, dull reddish color with a narrow yellowish band from tip to base of the inner tepals. It is stoloniferous (spreads prolifically by stolons).
T. julia, grows from 4 to 7 inches tall with lanceolate leaves an inch wide. The flower is orange-red to deep scarlet with a brownish black basal blotch, margined with yellow. Some forms may be yellow.
Section Eichleres – the largest in this subgenus. Tunics usually lined with a few hairs. Leaves are often broad, especially T. fosteriana and T. greigii (whose leaves also have red-brownish markings). Most notable, are the species T. fosteriana, T. greigii and T. kaufmanniana that were used in crossing to produce todays modern hybrids; these species also have separate classifications in the Garden Hybrid Classifications.
T. tubergeniana, leaves are lanceolate to an inch wide and the stem is 7 inches tall. The flower forms a nice rich orange-crimson cup, with a black blotch margined in yellow and violet anthers.
T. fosteriana, (photo of 'Madame Lefeber' at left) when discovered in the wild, amazed tulip growers in its size, most generally up to 14 inches but some up to 20. Most of the tall garden hybrids have some of the fosteriana genes. The flowers are a rich red crimson, margined with yellow and a dark blotch; leaves are broad. Any of the varieties sold are reliable year to year in a wide range of soils.
T. greigii, a distinctive flower that when open the outer tepals form a bowl and the inner tepal remaining upright, giving the appearance of a double bowl, in full sun all the tepals open back completely resembling a dish. Greigii tulips have distinctive dark maroon to reddish brown markings on its wavy leaves.
T. vvedenskyi, grows to about 8 inches with lanceolate leaves, flowers are orange-red with a yellow base, with or without a dark blotch. The color of the tepals are a paler shade of red on the back.
T. praestans, a widely grown variety. It is a multi-flowering species outside of the Biflores section, with the flowers a bright red or orange-red without a basal blotch, the leaves are broad and grey-green.
T. kaufmanniana, (Photo of 'Ancilla' at right) known as the waterlily tulip, widely grown and adaptable with many varieties, flower colors in white, yellow, pink, orange and red held about 10 inches above the 2 inch broad leaves. When open, the tepals arch back forming a star shaped flower. Early blooming.
Section Kolpakowskianae – narrow glaucous (waxy blue-gray bloom) leaves, leaves with undulate margins and yellow, orange or red flowers. Bulb tunics are lined with hairs at the tip and base. The species grow mainly in the Tien Shan and Pamir Alai as well as the Altai Mountains to the northeast.
T. kolpakowskianae, a small tulip with bright yellow flowers, the outer tepals stained with a reddish pink on the back, similar to T. cluisiana, but not as pronounced. T. kolpakowskianae is found growing on stony slopes and semi-desert up to 8530 ft. and grows from 8-14 inches tall. Leaves are linear lanceolate to ¾ inch wide.
T. ostrowskiana, similar to the above tulip, only the flower color is scarlet to orange-red with a small brownish black basal blotch margined with yellow.
Section Orithyia – small plant only 2-8 inches tall, with two leaves and yellow flowers stained a dingy violet or green on the outside tepal. Species occur from the Altai to the Tien Shan Mountains. A recent gene study put Section Orithyia into a separate subgenus.
T. uniflora – species in this section usually not found to purchase, as the flowers are very small.
Section Clusianae – This section is considered to be distinctive enough that it should have its own subgenus, but for now, it does not. Small bulbs with prominent tuft of hairs at its tip. Leaves are long and narrow, flowers are red or yellow, and in the species type, T. clusiana, white flowers with red backs on the tepals. Grows wild in Iran, Pamir Alai, Kasmir and north-western India. T. clusiana has naturalized in Turkey and southern Europe.
T. clusiana (photo at left) Several cultivars available. The flower reaches from 6 to 13 inches tall with erect linear-lanceolate leaves. T. clusiana is the white flowered form with a a reddish pink back on the outer tepals whose pointed bud is attractive before opening. I personally favor this tulip and cultivars, although it's not as large as the garden hybrids, it has an elegant presence, its magically stunning; I also appreciate the thin foliage. Both Thomas Jefferson and Henry Mitchell grew it in Virginia. T. cluisana, it's varieties, and T. chrysantha (photo at the right) are usually mentioned in books that discuss growing tulips in the South, including Julie Ryan, in Perennial Gardens of Texas and William Welch in his Perennial Garden Color, for the warm Texas USDA Zones. They are reliable from year to year, and may increase. Most varieties or cultivars are cream, yellow or golden with a reddish coloring on the outer tepals. A mix of them would look great.
T. montana, has been described by Richard Wilford as the perfect little red tulip. “Crimson to vermilion-scarlet and brilliant blood-red” with a small black blotch, forms a small cup-shaped flower, grows to 4-5 inches tall with the leaves about ½” wide. Sometimes this tulip may be offered under the name T. wilsoniana.
T. linifolia and T. batalinii. T. linifolia is similar to T. montana, small to 4-5 inches in height, with bright red flowers and thin leaves is known to be an excellent garden flower, even with high rainfall (but needing fast draining soil). Listed within T. linifolia, is the Batalinii group. Sometimes they will be shown outside the linifolia as T. batalinii 'Bright Gem' a sulfur yellow flushed with orange, T. batalinii 'Red Gem', 'Red Hunter', 'Apricot Jewel' or 'Yellow Jewel'. Any of these jewels and gems are brilliant performers in the garden and planted in lawns that won't be mowed until the leaves yellow and disappear.
Subgenus Eriostemones – this subgenus contains showy multi-flowered plants, funnel shaped flowers with a slight constriction at it's base. The flowers open to form a star in full sun. Outer tepals exhibit a dull gray-green or violet staining on the back. Leaves are thin – linear to lanceolate.
Section Australes – flowers are creamy white and pale yellow to bright golden yellow and brownish red, but never the bright red found in sub-genus Tulipa. They grow in southern Europe, North Africa, Turkey, the Caucasus Mountains, northwestern Iran and Central Asia.
T. sylvestris, described as the yellow flowering tulip of central and northern Europe and Scandinavia, also called the Florentine Tulip. One of the best for naturalizing, it increases by stolons. Grows up to 18 inches tall with only leaves about ¾ inches wide with one or two flowers to a stem. The green bud opens to a golden yellow with green bands running up and down on the outside of the elliptic tepals. A good bet for the garden. Another species Thomas Jefferson is said to have grown.
T. patens, is similar to T. sylvestris, only white with a yellow center and slightly thinner leaves.
T. orphanidea, a dull orange red with a dark blotch inside, with a greenish or buff colors on the back of the outer tepals. The flower grows up to 8 inches. I think the yellow version is much handsomer, T. orphanidea 'Flava' (photo at left). T. orphanidea is Anna Pavord's favorite bulb, author of the hefty books Tulips, and Bulbs, major works on the subject.
T. sprengeri, the last of the botanic tulips to flower, is also a good naturalizer for most areas of the garden except under evergreens. Good drainage is required as with all the tulips, however, this tulips does not need a good summer baking. The shiny red flower grows up to 16 inches tall with bright shiny green leaves not more than an inch wide. The flower is without a blotch and the outer tepals display buff or yellowish red with the inner tepals wider than the outer tepals. This tulip is excellent for the areas of one's garden that receives regular summer irrigation.
Section Saxatiles – Flowers are in shades of violet, pink to pinkish red to brick red with a yellow or blue-black blotch. Some of the species grow in Crete, other on Rhodes and southwestern Turkey, the Middle East or Iran.
T. saxatilis, the green buds nod but turn upright as they open. The flowers are pink to lilac-pink with a large delineated sulfur yellow blotch, the tepals form a cup, but open flat in the sun. The green leaves, about an inch wide come up in December but don't flower until April and are undamaged by snow or freezes. It is stoloniferous but flowers better in a very rocky or confined environment, such as a small pot. Very similar to T. bakeri in appearance. The popular cultivar 'Lilac Wonder' is often associated with both species.
T. bakeri, similar to T. saxatilis, but better, and with a deeper pink color; it also blooms later. Is a better bloomer, in that it does not need to be confined. 'Lilac Wonder' (photo at right) looks pretty much the same whether it's listed as T. bakeri or T. saxatilis according to many accounts.
T. humilis (including subspecies T. pulchella, T. violacea -- photo at left is 'Persian Pearl'), a low growing tulip 4-6 inches tall. The colors are mainly magenta-rose to purplish rose with a blue or black blotch. The leaves sprawl on the ground are are about an inch wide. Attractive for rock gardens. This flower may be listed at T. pulchella or T. violacea.
Section Biflores – multi-flowered species with flowers small, yellow or white with yellow blotch. Originating in the Mountains of Central Asia, but has spread to southern Europe.
T. biflora, an early multi-flowering tulip with white star shaped flowers and thin leaves. Sometimes the buds are nodding before opening, sometimes erect. These are small flowers and may be disappointing to some. Similar larger flowers are sold under the name T. polychroma.
T. bifloriformis, similar to T. biflora. Grows on a taller stem to 10 inches, but still with a small flower. They are multi-flowering, up to 8 to 11 per stem, also early flowering.
T. turkestanica, not quite as tall as T. biflora. A vigorous grower in the garden with commonly 5-6 flowers per stem, but up to 12. Wider, less starry tepals with a larger yellow blotch. Will grow in clay soil and increase; an early bloomer.
T. tarda, (photo at left) star-like flowers that are mostly yellow, but the tepals are tipped in white. Usually short stemmed to 2-4 inches tall with thin linear green leaves. A small tulip that blooms later in April, hence its name. Stems with 6-8 flowers per stem. Henry Mitchell wondered why catalogs still sold this flower, until he tried it. Very eye catching, especially when placed in the front of the border.
T. dasystemon, nearly solidly yellow, the outer tepals are stained with greenish or dingy purple ont the back with a single flower to the stem. It is not widely grown, but is offer in the catalogs.
Section Lophophyllon – Only one flower, red, in this section, T. regelii, named after Eduard Regel the great Russian botanist. T. regelii has unusual leaves that have raised, undulating ridges along its length, a characteristic not found in any other species. I've not seen this flower offered for sale.
Neo-tulipae – cultivated tulips that have escaped into the wild with discovery beginning in the late nineteenth century. Taxonomists haven't decided how to classify them as yet.
T. marjolletii, a late flowering tulip that opens wide to 4-5 inches wide. Primrose yellow tepals feathered in rosy red towards the base with a small, undefined blue gray blotch. It may not sound too attractive, but it is. Photo of T. marjolletii 'Karina van Grieken' at right.
T. mauritiana, red flower with a yellow base.
*Most of the information about the species tulips is from Richard Wilford's excellent book, Tulips, Species and Hybrids for the Gardener.
These thirty-odd species may be found from year to year in the trade, although not every year. It was at first disheartening to me to discover I would not be able to order any of the 120 wild species growing in nature. But it is beyond my reach to do a “Noah” and invite even two of every species of tulips into my garden, whether 30 varieties or all 120. There are plenty enough available to suit the limited amount of space my other plants have to share with them. The above information, though it might seem pedantic, gives insights to the characteristics of different species to help one to choose among them, the best for the purpose and location. Practically all these tulips will grow well and trouble free and continue from year to year in the Texas Panhandle, provided the soil has improved drainage. Rob Proctor, in Naturalizing Bulbs, mentions most of these species as bulbs suitable for gardens in most areas of the United States.
Even though many of these tulips grow in elevations higher than the Texas Panhandle, they are highly adaptable. The most important requirements are good soil drainage, adequate moisture (either natural or supplemented) in winter and spring, and a good baking in the summer. We will probably never have a problem providing the required heat of summer. Amending the soil for faster drainage will solve the problem if we encounter a summer with excessive moisture. Our area is sufficiently cold in the winter to enable most wild tulips to bloom.
*Note: photos of some species tulips copied from The Tulip Gallery.
Species Tulips for Low Maintenance/Low Water-use Gardens
Species tulips are the trouble free plants one could choose for the low maintenance and low water-use garden. Species tulips look great in clumps of 12+ or in drifts throughout the garden. I mentioned the leaf width in many of the descriptions; to me this is an important point if the sight of the plant's leaves is annoying after they bloom. Depending on the background plantings, this might be important to you too.
Tulips can be planted in turf areas with crocus. Choose varieties that are shorter, those in the Clusianae Section, T. linifolia Batalini Group, the little Gems and Jewels are favored by Lauren Springer Ogden. Springer Ogden also notes that T. clusiana and T. chrysantha are her favorite species tulips.
Intermingling several different tulip species with different blooming times opens up xeric areas in the spring. As many of the species tulips will bloom before our heat and drought tolerant warm season plants, they are an excellent choice when under-planting near woody or herbaceous perennials or near the end of tree canopies of deciduous trees. A garden composed of only warm season perennials won't get started until nearly all the tulips have bloomed. The late winter/early spring irrigation won't bother the xeric plants, and the occasional summer irrigation or rainfall isn't enough to hurt the bulbs. Secondly, as most xeric plants benefit from soil with good drainage, they pair well together.
I've planted T. bakerii 'Lilac Wonder' under a deciduous tree canopy and they have bloomed and spread. In well amended soil and moderate watering, many other species tulips will thrive as well.
References are listed on Part 2.
Originally published as a GardenNotes, Angie Hanna, April 8, 2014