Gardening with Hybrid Tulips
Most of the tulips we're familiar with are the hybrid tulips developed in England, France and the Netherlands, mostly in the Netherlands. They are tall stemmed with single cup, chalice or lily shaped flowers available in every true color but blue and black. Work is still being done on those colors. For many, tulips are no longer a national craze, but a rite of spring or a private passion.
The biggest complaint people have about the hybrid tulips is that that often don't come back the following year, or if they do, they come back fewer in number and weaker in appearance, whereas species tulips come back faithfully year after year in good form.
Hybrid tulips are developed for a number of things, chiefly, to offer a rainbow array of colors, to look uniform and flower the first year. After that, there are some varieties that offer a wiff of fragrance, there are several classifications that offer longevity, and some that will increase (if helped). The remaining hybrids are bred to be bedded out at annuals. The main thing, is to understand what tulips in each classification has to offer, and choose accordingly. Tulips are divided into fifteen divisions, according to when they bloom, their height, the shape of the flower and the tulips they most closely resemble, such as the Fosteriana, Greigii or Kaufmanniana divisions. As far as the flowering time, early generally means March in our climate, mid-season would be end of March, first part of April, and late blooming refers to April and beginning of May. Due to our variable spring climate, some years will be earlier, some later, and some pretty short for blooming.
Garden Hybrid Tulip Classifications or Divisions
Single Early Group
Single early tulips are among the first of the of the hybrids to bloom. Flower stems are short, but stout, 8-16 inches and display simple cup shaped flowers. They come in a full range of colors and are considered by many to be among the most attractive. As they bloom early, they are subject to more adverse weather, but are noted for handling the wind. Usually few perennial flowers are blooming to compliment them. Single early tulips are some of the oldest cultivars, including the very early 'Duc van Thol' tulips, used in forcing for early winter blooming.
Double Early Group
Double early tulips display an appearance similar to a roses or peonies, with far more than six tepals. Because of the extra head weight, staking may be necessary in exposed locations when battered by the wind, but their lower height up to 12 inches is an advantage. Flowers of double early tulips are longer lasting than the single early, and flower about the same time. Double early tulips have more impact and are more noticeable from a distance.
Triumph tulips are taller than the single earlies, rising to 16-20 inches tall on sturdy stems with cup shaped flowers and single rounded tepals. They are mid-season and compact plants that offer the widest available selection. There are numerous cultivars dating back to the nineteenth century still in the trade, 'Prinses Irene' and 'Couleur Cardinal' two of the more famous hybrids. Triumph tulips are a result of a cross between the Darwin and early tulips in 1923 by the Dutch breeder N. Zandbergen. It was considered a triumph to have tulips bridge the gap between early and late spring season blooming. Triumph do not reliable come back the next year in the garden and are great when used as bedding plants to be removed after flowering. A good selection to choose if one is impatient with the foliage left after blooming – just remove and compost the whole plant, bulb and all.
Darwin Hybrid Group
The Darwin Hybrid tulips revolutionized the tulip trade in the mid-twentieth century. First developed in 1943 by D.W. Lefeber when he crossed T. fosteriana 'Madame Lefeber' (now called 'Red Emperor') with the Darwin tulips, they were introduced into the United States by John Scheepers with the selection 'Apeldoorn' in 1951. They were an instant sensation. Sometimes they are referred to as Giant Darwin Hybrids or Impression tulips. Available in a wide range of colors and combinations, Darwin Hybrids are late spring blooming with large goblet shaped flowers. Tall and strong stemmed up to 30” (but usually 20-24') in some cultivars. They reliably return to the garden over a long number of years and are particularly mentioned by Rob Proctor in Naturalizing Bulbs, as being long lived stalwarts in gardens throughout the Western U.S. Consider these perennial. I have read that for better longevity with the Darwin Hybrids, don't cut off the stems or use as cut flowers.
Single Late Group
Also tall stemmed up to 24” and late blooming, single late blooming tulips come from the English cottage and old Darwin line of tulips formerly known as the Breeder tulips. These tulips require a great deal of care to thrive year to year.
English gardeners went to what I would consider great lengths in the growing and protection of their tulips. Soils of the beds were carefully amended. Some references recommend not planting them in the same bed two years in a row. The dates for planting and lifting were considered “solemn season” with the method of planting the bulb a “sacred rite”. Erecting tents over the raised beds for protection against inclement weather was common, where seats were provided for onlookers when the tulip was in bloom. In Rev. Jacob's day in late nineteenth to early twentieth century, a “movable glass light” was used to protect the flowers from wind and rain. Light shades were set up about four feet above ground to shade the flower on sunny days, supposedly to prolong the blooms. Bulbs were planted in raised beds to increase the drainage of the soil. The culture of the florist tulip was described as simple. “Good drainage, good but not rich soil – protection from frost, hail, and wind; care in lifting and storing.” (Jacobs, Tulips, p. 62).
However, single late tulips make great bedding tulips, especially when discarding after flowering, as they are now designed to be treated. They are generally purchased for the purpose of mass plantings then to be lifted and composted, after which other annuals take their place.
Late flowering tulips, flowers with a rounded base that curve inward before curving outward in the manner of a lily. This is the look most preferred not just by the Turks, but by many today. Lily flowered tulips were bred from the old Darwin and cottage tulips, but have more staying power in the garden year to year. They grow to a height of 20-24 inches and look great growing among single late, Darwin hybrids and double late tulips. Include a few late blooming daffodils and you have a spectacular bed. Many colors available.
Fringed tulips are tulips whose tepals look frayed and teethed at the ends. These can look very splashy, adding that dash of daring; but they are not admired by all. They flower in late April to May, and grow 16-24 inches tall. Fringed tulips, along with the Parrots, are a good example how the tulips have changed to appeal to all. A mixed bed of tulips is enhanced with a dozen or so fringed tulips. Fringed tulips are a fairly recent grouping, previously grouped with the parrot tulips. The first fringing was manipulated in 1917, but took about 40 years for breeders to fully capitalize on the characteristic.
Viridiflora literally means green flowering. For along time I didn't think I'd want to buy a green flower. However, after seeing some of these in person, I've changed by mind. They are captivating. Viridiflora tulips have green colorations on the backs of the tepals, and sometimes, a third or fourth color mixed in, with green displaying only as an accent color. Viridiflora tulips grow to 12-24” tall, have small to medium size cups and are late bloomers, some have variegated foliage edged with yellow or creamy white. Some species tulips also have green coloring on the back of the tepals as a natural coloration.
Old House Gardens, one of very few companies, offers Rembrandt tulips at classic prices. These are some of the tulips dating back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century. These are the versions of the tulips that resulted in the commodity speculation called Tulipomania. The broken flamed and feathered Rosen, Bizarden and Violetten tulips are old world masterpieces and priced between a couple of dollars to $20 a bulb. Might seem like a lot, but what else could you own from the seventeenth century for so little.
The bulb industry had worked hard to eradicate the BTV – broken tulip virus. But a few bulbs change hands in clubs and flower societies. If you can get some, I would, then take care in lifting, separating their offsets and storing them, not leaving them in ground during the summer. Because of the virus, the entire plant is weakened, lessening its longevity, so be sure to keep it going through the offsets. Most catalogs offer a few varieties called Rembrandt tulips, also stating they are Rembrandt-type tulips. These are still attractive, even though they are not “the tulips that drove men mad”.
The parrot tulips are a group with twisted and distorted tepals. Sounds monstrous, but they are quite alluring. This spring, I purchased from the Market Street florists one of the more popular cultivars, 'Rococo', a red tulip and dusky purple, with feathering of yellow at the margins. 'Black Parrot and 'Blue Parrot' are two other popular parrot tulips. Parrot tulips are the result of “sports” or natural mutations. Usually late flowering, they grow to 16-28 inches depending on the cultivar. Unless you are a tulip purist, give it a try. Parrot tulips were first noted in 1620.
Double Late Group
Similar to double early tulips, only flowering late. Their flowers are long lasting and great looking planted with other late blooming groups.
This group consists of T. kaufmanniana and its cultivars and hybrids. They are very early flowering. Some display reddish spots or dashes on their leaves. The stems are short, about 8 inches tall, but with large flowers. Known as the waterlily tulips, they open so wide in the sun. Any of the cultivars and hybrids will be long growing in the garden without all that fuss of lifting, storing and replanting.
This group consists of T. fosteriana and its cultivars and hybrids. They are early to mid season flowering on stems about 16-20 inches tall. T. fosteriana is the species tulip crossed with the Darwins to develop the Darwin Hybrid Group. As usual, in soil with good drainage, they will be long lived in the garden.
A group of low growing tulips up to 8-12 inches tall, with leaves held close to the ground and display characteristic red-brown markings, like dots and dashes. More of a mid-season tulip for long-term longevity in well drained soil. Large size flowers that have a distinctive appearance in bud and bloom. The buds are held erect with a wide base that tapers to a point. When opened, the tepals form a double bowl, longer outer tepals flaring back with rolled in edges, and the inner tepals nearly straight up. In full sun, the double bowl effect turn into a single open dish. Greigii tulips will return year to year in well draining soil where its dry during the summer.
This division contains the species tulips and any other tulips that prove difficult to classify. Please refer to the section on Wild, Species or Botanic tulips for more information. By and large, species tulips happily return year to year, with good draining soil, winter/spring moisture, with a hot and dry summer. They are a forgiving group and will take some summer moisture (with appropriate soil drainage) and will do well in xeric and low water-use areas.
Note: Most of the information about the fifteen groups of tulips are are Wilford's, Tulips and Pavord's, Bulbs.
A Few Tips for Gardening with Tulips
Bulbs purchased from a reliable supplier should flower the first year. An important point to remember is that every bulb will not flower every year after that, even with species tulips. Some years may be more trying and they will need an extra season to regroup. Not flowering is also caused by over-watering in the summer, in which case, the bulbs will rot. Tulip bulbs are tasty treats to squirrels and deer as well (maybe even the neighbor!). Tulips prefer a sunny spot where the bulbs can get a good baking. The Texas Panhandle has cold enough winter for most tulips; this should not be a factor.
Many of the tulips originate in areas of poor soil, but with good drainage. However, it was discovered early on, the tulips grow bigger and flower better in nutrient richer soils. Feed your tulip beds as you would other beds with an inch layer of compost spring and fall.
Tulips can be lifted after flowering, but must be healed in until the leaves completely yellow. When lifting and transplanting the tulips, care should also be made in not damaging the roots or leaves, and replanting them in a shady area.
If not immediately using the area for bedding out with annuals, wait until the foliage has entirely yellowed, usually sometime in June. Then remove the stems completely before storing them for drying. Place them in drying boxes, away from sunlight and dampness, but with air flow. After the tulips are dried, remove the roots, which should separate cleanly from the bulb, and clean the bulbs if necessary; separate the offsets. Set back in their drying boxes if wet from cleaning. After they dry again, they can be stored in labeled paper bags or mesh bags with air holes.
Replant the offsets in late September so they may have some extra months for growth. Replant mature bulbs in November before the stem begins to sprout, to allow the roots to fully develop.
Species tulips only need to be lifted and divided if they become congested and flower poorly.
When growing tulips as perennials, snip off the top of the flower head after flowering to prevent the plant from using energy to make seeds. This is called tipping and applies to both the species as well as garden hybrids.
When planting tulips as annuals, and expecting only one year's use replacing them with other annuals immediately after flowering, there is no need to plant them deep. Plant 2 inches deep with enough mulch to prevent the bulb freezing in the ground over winter. This makes planting and removal easy.
Tulips in the Garden
Plant tulips in large quantities, unless one purely wishes to admire individual, heirloom quality tulips. I say singly, a tulip here, a tulip there, as that was the way they were enjoyed for centuries, until mass plantings became the norm. Tulips were expensive back then, and for many of the "Rembrandt's", even the wealthy owned only a few of each kind. Tulips look good in practically any way you plant them, and can be enjoyed singly, but I think better in clumps of 10-12. There is hardly anything more stunning and breathtaking than mass plantings of tulips mixed with daffodils, hyacinths and other spring blooming flowers.
Tulips, like all other flowers, show better when planted having a good background, either hardscape or shrubs. Using any single or a combination of these schemes listed below will give a near infinite variety of beds or borders:
- One variety in mass
- Combine several varieties of both early and late season tulips
- Use a mixture or either same color, complimentary colors or contrasting colors
- Include some parrot, fringed and lily tulips with solid colored late blooming tulips
- Include a mix of early and late season daffodils
- Plant shorter varieties on the outskirts of the beds
- Plant other short stemmed bulbs on the outskirts of the beds.
- Underplant with same color, complimentary or contrasting colors of pansies, violas, snapdragons or other cool season annuals.
- Plant the tulips among early blooming perennials such as phlox, rock cress or Alyssum wulfenianum.
- Plant tulips in tight clumps or scattered in spaces between shrubs, whether evergreen or deciduous.
- Plant tulips in clumps or scattered near the end of the tree canopy.
- Strong, darker colors appear better in our bright sunlight, the more mellow, pastel shades can wash out some, but look good on overcast days.
Tulips, both botanic and hybrid, also lend themselves to pot culture. Normally, the hybrids that don't return reliably make good container tulips, such as Single Early, Triumph, Single Late, Fringed, Viridiflora, Rembrandt and Parrot tulips.
A pot about 6 inches deep, filled with gritty, well drained potting soil is best, especially if they will be composted afterwards. Adding small pebbles or lava sand to potting soil works.The bulb contains the nutrients needed for the flower, so adding organic nutrients isn't necessary unless you'll be reusing the bulbs. In November, about the same time you are planting bulbs in the garden, plant bulbs midway down in the pot. Plant a few crocuses an inch above the tulips.Then bury the pot to the rim in a location that will received sun with winter and spring moisture. Pots submerged in a sand pit are easy to pull out and hose down before bringing it into the house for enjoyment inside.
Planting tulips in larger containers are a bit iffy. Winter's constant freezing and thawing in above ground pots can kill the bulbs. I haven't, but will try, planting some in the thick, insulated pots, and hope for a moderate and steady winter. In some years, the pansies make it through to spring, in other years, not so good.
On Ordering Tulips
I have noticed within the last decade a general decrease in the tulip stands lining front beds of homes in most neighborhoods. There is no need for denying oneself nature's ultimate tribute to the heralding of spring. Which ever way you choose to grow tulips, choose what is right for your garden and your desires. Whatever the style or method or type, I hope you'll choose tulips.
I have always been late to the game in ordering bulbs for spring planting. Spring blooming bulb catalogs start to arrive by June. I thought this rushing the season, much like early Christmas items displayed during the summer in stores. By September, many of the rarer and treasured species, cultivars and hybrids get picked over pretty quick. Often times, I would have to settle with my second, third or fourth choices, and a few times, all cultivars of the species tulips were gone (especially the Greigii cultivars). This year in June, as soon as the market opens, I will be in there buying with the other tulip gardeners who are in the know.
Local retailers have responded to the declining trends in bulb planting by stocking with an even more limited selection. For the best quality bulbs, avoid the bargain bulbs (that really are inferior) offered in grocery stores and big box stores and go directly to the bulb catalog firms. I've included a list some of the better known tulip growers and exporters:
Brent and Becky's Bulbs, store.brentandbeckysbulbs.com
D. Landreth Seed Company, since 1784, heirloom bulbs and seeds, www.landrethseeds.com
Dutch Gardens, bulbs direct from the Netherlands, www.dutchgardens.com
John Scheepers, Beauty from Bulbs, since 1908, www.johnscheepers.com
Old House Gardeners, specializing in heirloom bulbs, www.oldhousegardens.com
White Flower Farm, www.whiteflowerfarm.com
Jacobs, Rev. Joseph, Tulips, 1912. Available to read online here.
Mandaville, John, “Turbans and Tulips”, Aramco World Magazine, May/June, 1977.
Mitchell, Henry, The Essential Earthman, Indiana University Press, 1981.
Mitchell, Henry, One Man's Garden, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.
Old Tulips, Hortus Tulipus, for information about old cultivars of tulips.
Pavord, Anna, Bulbs, Mitchell Beazley, Octopus Publishing Group, Ltd., 2009. A simply gorgeous book for the dedicated bulb grower.
Proctor, Rob, Naturalizing Bulbs, Henry Holt and Company, 1997.
Ryan, Julie, Perennial Gardens for Texas, University of Texas Press, 1998.
Springer, Laura, The Undaunted Garden, Planting for Weather-Resilient Beauty, Fulcrum Publishing, 1994.
Springer Ogden, Laura and Rob Proctor Passionate Gardening, Good Advice for Challenging Climates, Fulcrum Publishing, 2000.
The Tulip Gallery, for photos of tulips in the fifteen classifications.
Turktas, Mine; Ozge Karakas Metin, Berk Bastug, Fahriye Ertugrul, Yasemin Izgi Sarac and Erdal Kaya, "Molecular Phylogenetic Analysis of Tulipa (Liliaceae) based on noncoding plastid and nuclear DNA sequences with an Emphasis on Turkey", Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2013.
Welch, William C., Perennial Garden Color, Perennials, Cottage Gardens, Old Roses and Companion Plants, Taylor Publishing Company, 1989.
Wilford, Richard, Tulips, Species and Hybrids for the Gardener, Timber Press, 2006. A must have book for people nerds like myself interested in the various species tulips
Angie Hanna, April 8, 2014