Gardeners know spring has arrived when tulips begin showing their brilliant colors. The federal plant database classifies the flowering plant as a vascular plant, seed plant, and member of the lily family, classifications that all varieties of the flowering plant categorize under. To differentiate the tulip varieties and learn how to best care for them, gardeners should observe the bloom shapes and notice which months the plants bud.
As recorded in the National Gardening Association article titled “Tulip,” the flower stems reach heights of 6 inches to over 24 inches and bloom in a wide range of colors, including red, white, pink, maroon, salmon, and apricot. The assorted bloom shapes, described as ruffled, lily-shaped, fringed, or doubled, distinguish the many tulip varieties.
Temperatures influence the appearance of tulips, as well. For example, a tulip variety that averages 30 inches in height may only reach 20 inches when planted in a warm region. The warm climate also shortens bloom lives, indicating tulips exhibit their beauty for longer periods in cooler regions.
Soon tulips became wildly popular in Holland. So popular, in fact, that they resulted in phenomena called ‘tulipomania’ in which people began to speculate on them. What fired the speculation was the hope of finding tulips that were broken or striped.
Flowers with a break were an unpredictable occurrence making them good for speculation. In recent years, it has been discovered that the break is the result of virus, transferred by aphids. In 1637, the tulip market in Holland crashed but by then the Dutch were skilled tulip growers and the plants became a commercial success as an export. After the crash, the Dutch government stepped in and made speculation illegal.
Tulips are simple, elegant flowers. In the spring broad leaves push up from the bulbs and through the soil. When blooming season arrives, a single stem (there are multi-stemmed varieties available) sends up a tight, green bud. When opened it bears a singular cup-shaped flower. Blossoms can be found in every color but true blue. However, the designation of the color black is arguable because black tulips aren’t a true black but a midnight purple.
Thanks to the wonders of hybridization tulips do not need to remain married to the ‘typical.’ They can also be found in double, fringed, twisted, perfumed, or unscented. They come in a variety of size from miniature blossoms suitable for rock gardens to the towering height of 2.5 feet. They are a springtime flower. However, they come in three flowering seasons, early, mid, and late spring so that you can keep the display going all spring.
Gardeners who wish to see and smell tulips throughout spring plant several varieties, which blossom during separate times in the season. Showwinners and Stresas bloom early, immediately following winter frosts. Varieties that bloom midseason include Burning Hearts, Esthers, Golden Parades, and Negritas. Succeeding these exquisite displays are Grand Styles, Mentons, and Black Parrots, the late bloomers.
Tulip bulbs can be obtained via mail order suppliers or local garden centers. If purchasing bulbs from a garden center, choose those that are firm to the touch and free of mould, bruises, or cuts. Avoid bulbs that feel squishy or are missing their papery brown shell. The best bulbs will be free of blemishes, larger than average, and heavy for their size.
Some tulip varieties tend to bloom early in the spring, whereas others bloom later. Choosing several types allows for staggering of blooming times to have tulips flowering for the entire season.
For those who live in warmer places where winters are mild, it may be more difficult to grow tulips. The likelihood of success can be increased by choosing smaller tulip varieties that are more tolerant of warm climates, such as:
If you purchase tulip bulbs some time before you will plant them, store the bulbs in a paper bag and keep them away from ripening fruits, which give off ethylene gas that can destroy flower buds within the tulip bulbs.
The refrigerator crisper is a good place for storing tulip bulbs as long as there is no fruit nearby. If this is not an option, store the bulbs somewhere dark, cool, and dry – moisture can cause bulbs to rot.
The ideal time for planting tulip bulbs varies by Climate Hardiness Zone (see the Climate Hardiness Zone Maps for North America or Europe to find your zone).
For most zones, bulbs should be planted in September or early October. However, for warmer zones, the following exceptions apply:
Soil should be below 60 degrees Fahrenheit at the time of planting.
Tulips do best if they receive at least 6 hours of sun each day, preferably morning or afternoon rather than evening. Choose a spot that will receive sufficient sunlight, and where the soil is well drained, sandy, and neutral or slightly acid. Soil should be enriched with humus and compost. Don’t plant in areas where water collects.
Plant small tulip varieties 4-5 inches deep and 3-4 inches apart. Bulbs for large varieties should be placed 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches apart.
Place bulbs in holes pointy-side up with the roots facing downward. Be sure to plant all bulbs in a tulip bed at the same depth or they may not bloom simultaneously, and add a granular, low-nitrogen fertilizer specifically formulated for bulbs.
Water thoroughly right after planting and then again when the first leaves make their appearance.
There are a number of things that gardeners can do to encourage their tulips to perennialize:
If only foliage appears the following year, discard the bulbs. They are unlikely to bloom well again.
Lots of animals love the taste of tulips, and squirrels and other rodents often decimate tulip beds. Planting tulips in wire mesh baskets or lining the tulip bed with wire mesh can prevent rodents from eating the bulbs. Adding a handful of sharp gravel in the hole when planting bulbs can also help to discourage gophers and voles.
Deer also love the taste of tulips, so it’s a good idea not to plant a tulip bed anywhere that deer may graze.
Flower gardens with full sun exposure and well draining soil in zones 3 – 7 are good locations for tulips. The bold color, fragrance and beauty as cut flowers are just a few reasons tulips are planted during autumn. This primer offers tulip ideas and matches them to garden themes.
Tulips are a favorite of cutting gardens. Darwin, lily, parrot, Rembrandt or triumph varieties are good choices. The fringed tulip ‘Party Time’ grows to 18 – 28.” The ‘Rembrandt Tulip Mix’ is a late bloomer with multi-colors. The single late tulip ‘Queen of Night’ has deep velvet looking maroon color and blooms late. Cutting gardens should have a range of early, mid and late blooming tulips; this will ensure flowers the entire time spring.
Plant tulip bulbs in fenced areas to keep away from wildlife. Many herb and vegetable gardens are fenced in, making it a perfect place to add all types of tulips. Grow tulips with flowering herb plants or use as a garnish for cakes or in making potpourri.
Gardeners can combine fenced vegetable and herb gardens with cutting gardens. Open planting beds are better for spring flowering bulbs like alliums and daffodils, not liked by rodents, rabbits or deer. Tulips that are good for naturalizing will have more success when planted among other bulbs.
Tulipa fosteriana ‘Red Emperor’ is another example of tulip species. The red flower will attract hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are attracted to gardens containing flowers with a trumpet or cup shaped bloom in red, orange, hot pink or dark purple colors. ‘Red Emperor’ is also a fragrant flower.
Southern gardeners grow tulips as annuals outside. Tulips should be refrigerated six to eight weeks, in a ventilated paper bag. Plant the bulbs outside in December or January. Tulip ‘Angelique’ is double late, peony type that can be used in this situation.
To enjoy beautiful potted tulip blooms in the winter, purchase high quality bulbs from a garden center or order bulbs from a reputable company and then follow these steps for preparing and planting them.
Some tulip varieties are more amenable to being tricked into winter growth than others. Good choices include:
If purchasing bulbs from a garden center, select heavy, blemish-free bulbs that are not soft and show no signs of mold. Plant bulbs no later than early October.
Use clean flowerpots and add 2 inches or more of moistened peat moss combined with perlite or vermiculite to the bottom of the pot for drainage. Enough of this mix should be added so that bulbs will be planted near the top of the pot.
Add the bulbs with roots facing downward (pointy side up) and then cover them with soil. Bulbs should be planted shallowly, so that their tips stick out of the soil.
Bulbs for indoor blooms can be planted far closer together than outdoor tulips – they can be almost touching one another. After planting, soak the soil until water seeps out of the flower pot’s drainage holes.
Potted tulip bulbs should be moved to a dark place where the temperature ranges between 35 and 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Possibilities include basements, unheated garages, refrigerators, or outdoors if it’s cold enough. Bulbs must not be allowed to freeze, however, and they should not be stored near ripening fruit, which gives of ethylene gas that can inhibit flowering later on.
Place a cardboard box or paper bag over the flowerpots to keep them in the dark and retain soil moisture. Check soil from time to time and add enough water to keep it slightly moist but not soaked.
Chill bulbs for 10-12 weeks if the temperature is closer to 41 degrees Fahrenheit and 14-16 weeks if it’s closer to 48 degrees. There are a few varieties such as Brilliant Star that require only 10 weeks of chilling at 48 degrees and bloom earlier than other varieties, but most tulips need more chilling time.
Once the chilling period is complete, check the flowerpot drainage holes to ensure that roots have developed. When roots are visible and shoots are about an inch high, move pots to a bright sunny spot to induce blooming.
To have blooms for the entire season, plant batches of bulbs at intervals so that they can be removed from the chilling spot and encouraged to bloom at different times.
Unfortunately, most afflictions that tulips suffer can’t be cured once they happen, so prevention is the key to healthy, abundant blooms. To reduce the likelihood stunted growth or disease in the future, it is necessary to diagnose current problems and take corrective action.
Insufficient winter cooling, warm spring temperatures, or some combination thereof can cause tulips to develop short stems and small flowers or no flowers at all. In severe cases, even the growth of leaves is inhibited.
Stunted growth and failure to bloom are common problems in places where winters tend to be mild. This problem can be prevented in the future by:
If storing tulips at home, be sure to keep them away from ripening fruits, which produce ethylene gas that can destroy flower buds inside the bulbs.
Tulip foliage should not be removed until it has turned yellow. Early removal can cause stunted growth or failure to bloom in the following season.
Nutrient-deficient soil can prevent tulips from blooming or even inhibit their growth altogether. Add a slow-release fertilizer when planting, on appearance of first leaves in spring, and once a month after flowers bloom until foliage dies back to prevent this problem.
Tulips will usually only flower from the same bulbs for 2-4 years, and fewer in places where winters are mild. Original bulbs tend to disintegrate after one planting season, throwing off smaller daughter bulbs that are often too little to produce many flowers.
Beginning gardeners often have questions about growing tulip bulbs. These frequently asked questions and answers should help any gardener grow tulips.
Beginning gardeners often have questions about growing tulips. The best time to plant tulips is in the fall, when the ground is soft enough to dig the planting holes to the required depth yet the air retains its chill. Cool temperatures prevent tulips from breaking dormancy early or sprouting in the fall.
Newcomers to growing tulips often ask one or more of the following five questions. Before digging in, read this Q & A for best tips for growing tulips.
Planting times vary according to the gardening zone, but the general rule of thumb is to plant tulip bulbs in the fall before the or soon after the first frost. Tulips require planting holes dug several inches deep, and it’s easiest to dig into the soil before it has frozen.
When planting tulip bulbs, remember to keep the pointy side up. Tulip bulbs are shaped like Hershey’s kisses. Plant them with the pointy side up, as if a Hershey’s kiss is set down upon the table. The stem grows from the point side, the roots from the flat side.
The best time to plant tulip bulbs is in the mid to late fall, prior to the first heavy frost. If despite the best predictions the weather turns warm again, the bulbs may be fooled into thinking it’s spring and start to grow. There’s really nothing to be done. Nature takes care of tulips by providing them with a reservoir of stored energy in the bulb portion. The newly sprouted green stems may die at the next frost, but the bulbs should sprout again in the spring and continue to produce flowers.
If this is the second year of growing tulips in the garden and they fail to come up, nothing may be wrong. Many tulips last only one season. While the bulb package promises glorious flowers for several seasons, in warmer climates and gardening zones, tulips often struggle to produce abundant flowers as the years go by. Gardeners may see lots of green leaves and stems and no flowers or no stems at all.
Another reason may be that rodents have eaten the tulip bulbs. Many animals like to nibble at tulip bulbs and flowers including mice, rats, rabbits and deer. Using bone meal and commercial products such as Ropel to make the bulbs taste bad is one way to repel unwanted diners from the garden, but no one method of repelling pests is foolproof.
Tulips are surprisingly forgiving flowers, and if there’s a forgotten bag tucked in the back of the garage or garden shed, they can be planted as long as the ground can be worked and the holes dug to the required depth. Another option is planting tulips in pots, and keeping the pots in a cold frame or other protected area. Still another option is to plant tulips indoors, forcing them early for cheerful spring blossoms. Tulips can be grown as container flowers with some care and attention to the time and method of planting.
With hundreds of color, variety, and petal types to choose from, tulips offer gardeners in most gardening zones a rich and colorful palette to play with for bright spring blossoms.
Few people realize how richly diverse the tulip genus is and how many uncommon species are available for delightful rock garden plantings.
Species (botanical) tulips, small Asian wildflowers, are precursors of the larger tulips grown more commonly today. Originating in Asia Minor and spreading across Asia, Europe and Africa, species tulips are readily adaptable if extremes of cold and heat are avoided and good drainage is available.
Anna Pavord, in her book The Tulip (2001) writes,”[The wild species tulip’s] extraordinary diversity, its desire always to be trying on new clothes, is precisely what made it a source of wonder and delight to gardeners who over hundreds of years gradually nursed it into shapes and shades that even the tulips themselves had not thought of.”
Most species tulips are dwarf, less than six inches tall. They bloom at various times throughout the spring, many early, with various flower shapes (water-lily or turban), and come in a variety of bright colors: purple, red, yellow, white. The thumb-nail-sized bulbs should be planted in fall at a depth of three to four inches, and spaced three to four inches apart. Given room, they perennialize easily. They prefer full to partial sun.
There are a host of species tulips available both for northern and southern areas. T. Tarda, for example, will grow in zones 3-8; T. bakeri is suitable for zones 5-9.
Kaufmanniana (water-lily) tulips are also low-growing, wind-resistant, and ideal for rock gardens. With short stems, and petals bent slightly backward, they resemble the typical water-lily shape, hence the name.
Some varieties have mottled foliage; all have multi-colored interiors when fully opened. They bloom in early spring after the first species tulips. Blossoms are in the red, yellow, orange color range with various nuances and combinations.
The Kaufmannianas too may naturalize if left undisturbed. They should be planted in fall five to six inches deep and three to six inches apart in full to partial sun.
Unfortunately, rodents find tulips quite attractive. They may be discouraged by surrounding the bulbs with gravel when planting or by enclosing the entire underground planting with wire mesh.
Another possibility is to plant the bulbs in pots, put the pots in the ground and top with wire mesh, and cover with soil.
While these tulip species may not be readily available at local garden centers, specialty garden catalogs feature them.