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Tulip Types Explained: Our Top Picks For Success In The Garden

tulip types explained

We’ve compiled a list of our top tulip picks. Fall-planted bulbs are usually available for sale in early-to-late summer, for delivery to you in the fall. Note that often times, the most popular bulbs will sell out fast!

If you're just starting out with bulbs, we suggest picking tulips that are known for their reliability and then working from there, adding more every year as you learn where they are happy.

One challenge to bulb buying is that when the bulbs come up for sale, last year’s bulbs are gone; their blooms are no longer visible in the garden. Where was that spot that needed more tulips? Taking photos for reference helps, or placing a garden marker in the area, with what you’d like to plant, when the bulbs are blooming, makes ordering and planting quick and easy.

About Perennial Tulips

Are tulips perennial? Some varieties are perennial, coming back for several years, but some are not. For those that are called perennial, they only cooperate if their habitat is ideal – cold winters, winter-spring moisture, sunny location, dry summers, and good drainage are the keys to success. Many gardeners who want sure-fire flowers, will treat tulips as annuals, meaning that they'll replant their tulips each year with no expectations of seeing them reappear the following spring.

Try splitting the difference at first, by planting a selection known for being perennial, and then adding in additions in the coming years. There is such a huge selection, it’s hard not to plant more each fall.

Tulip varieties that are the most reliable perennial bloomers are: Darwin Hybrids, Emperor, and the lovely wildflower type tulips; Greigii and Kaufmanniana.

Tulips can be planted for many effects. Formally, they can edge a path, entry, or driveway with almost military precision. Informally is where their wild side emerges. Mixed in with Crocus, Daffodils, Allium, Hyacinth, Muscari and other bulbs, you can create an ever-changing spring parade of color. Plant a bed of bulbs then top it off with our ‘Tulip Topper Wildflower Seed Mix’ (plant either in fall or spring). As the bulbs are growing, the seeds will sprout and create a lush green carpet around the bulbs. As the bulbs fade, the seedlings will grow up to cover them as they age, and with the last flowering bulbs, the wildflowers will begin to bloom with non-stop flowers all season long.

To enjoy tulips all spring long, choose Emperor, Darwin, Triumph, Lily-Flowered, and Parrot Tulip bulbs in an array of colors that pleases you. Mix them together at planting time, and plant them as a border, or fill a planting bed for maximum effect. You will enjoy an ever-blooming palate of color all spring long.

Or, how about choosing various types of tulips (and other bulbs too) in the same color range? They will subtly harmonize for a beautiful effect.

Tulip Types Explained

darwin hybrid tulips

Darwin Hybrid Tulips

Perhaps one of the most reliably perennial, mid-spring bloomers with deep colors, and strong stems, Darwin Hybrids will come back each year for several springs when happy. Among the tallest tulips at 18-24" tall, they have large flowers on sturdy stems that open to almost 6" across. Plant in beds with other bulbs or amongst perennials – they’ll shine while your perennials get going, then the perennials will cover the bulbs. Consider Catmint, Beardtongue, Phlox, and Flax.

pastel emperor tulips

Emperor Tulips

Known for large (5") flowers and rich, bright colors, Emperor are among the best varieties for perennializing (naturalizing). Early spring blooms harmonize well with Daffodils, Crocus, Siberian Squill, Windflowers, and Spring Primrose. At 10-14" tall they are hardy, easy-to-grow tulips.

fringed tulips

Fringed Tulips

With a flair for the fancy, Fringed Tulip’s petals are trimmed with a fine fringe during their mid-to-late spring bloom time. Long lasting blooms make this tulip a garden favorite. 12-16" tall.

parrot tulips

Parrot Tulips

Parrot Tulips are garden rock stars. Ridged and rumpled petals, with a free-form edge, almost like tiny cabbage leaves, Parrot Tulips add a dramatic note to the late spring garden. Beautiful as cut flowers, find a sheltered spot for these tulips, as their heavy flowers often need support. Plant with Coneflower, Salvia, Delphinium. 18-22" tall.

triumph tulips

Triumph Tulips

The largest group of tulips, Triumphs are usually treated as annuals. Mid-spring blooming (about 10 days before Darwin), on medium tall, but sturdy stems, they come in every color but blue. 16-22" tall.

lily flowered tulips

Lily Flowered Tulips

Elegant and lovely, the reflexed, pointed petals of the Lily Flowered Tulip make this a perfect tulip for cutting or where their special form can be appreciated. Late spring blooming, they open like stars for a grand finale to the tulip season. Try them in front of green perennial foliage or with Allium, Beardtongue, and other late spring tulips. 18-24" tall.

double late tulips

Double Late Tulips

With long-lasting, large flowers and layers of petals, these lovely tulips can almost be mistaken for a double peony. Blooming in late spring, they combine well with Hyacinth, Daffodils and Daylilies (that will bloom just after, and hide the fading tulip foliage). 12-18" tall.

multi-flowered tulips

Multi-flowered Tulips

A ‘bouquet on one stem’ is one way to describe these 16-20" tall tulips. Each stem bears 3-5 flowers, making this tulip a great choice for a cutting flower. Plant with Bearded Iris for a beautiful combo.

wildflower tulips

Wildflower Tulips

Last, but not least, and one of our all-time favorite tulip groups, the Wildflower Tulips are a must-have in the spring garden. We call several species “wildflower” types as they are closely related to their original ancestors in Turkistan. Sturdy, perennial (they will even spread), and shorter than their thoroughbred relations, they pack big color and will carpet your garden in jewel-like flowers in the early spring.

More Types of Tulips

  • Greigii Tulips, at 10-12" tall, are perfect in a rock garden, garden edge, or among Muscari, Daffodils, and other early spring bulbs. With purple striped or spotted foliage and big bright flowers they pack a lot of interest in a small space.
  • Kaufmanniana Tulips, are compact growers from 4-12" tall, whose brilliant flowers open like stars to cover the garden in early spring color. Long lasting, these flowers open with the sun, becoming wide open by mid-day and gradually closing by evening. Lovely along a garden’s edge, in a rock garden or underneath still sleeping perennials.

How do I plant tulips?

Plant tulip bulbs about 6 weeks before first frost at a depth of 3 times the size of the bulb. A 1" bulb should be planted 3" deep. Make sure your spot is well-drained and will receive springtime sun. We recommend adding some organic bulb food at planting time as well. Just dig your hole (a bulb tool is great!) and drop in the bulb, roots down, pointy end up. Cover with soil, water it in and you’re done. If gophers and squirrels are a problem, you can line your planting area with a piece of chicken wire – this will discourage them. Likewise, cover your new bulb bed with chicken wire for a few months as the soil settles. This will discourage those looking for an easy meal. Read more great tips about deterring critters here.

The best way to tulip garden success is to take the plunge, dig, plant, and then sit back and enjoy the anticipation of the colorful blooms that will arrive on the wings of spring.

Success with Tulips over the Centuries

There is something about the shape of a tulip that has inspired and impassioned humans for thousands of years. Native to an area ranging from North Africa, southern Europe, the Mid-East, and across to the steppes of Mongolia and Siberia, this simple flower has captured the hearts and minds of people all over the globe. In cultivation for over 1000 years, they have taken on forms so varied and unique that sometimes we might not even recognize them as tulips.

By the late 16th century, tulips had made their way to the Netherlands, and the rest, as they say, is history. Dutch enthusiasm for the new flowers resulted in a breeding heyday. By 1630, tulip bulbs were traded and sold as futures in ever higher amounts. One bulb of Tulip Semper Augustus was sold for 10,00 guilders, an amount that could have bought a grand home on the canal and was 10 times the yearly income of a craftsman. By early 1637, the bubble burst and there were no buyers for tulip bulbs – bringing the Dutch economy to its knees. But tulips were firmly planted. Today the Netherlands is synonymous with tulips and is the largest tulip bulb producer in the world.

dog sitting next to a bed of tulips

We can gain insight into a tulip bulb’s basic needs by looking at its original habitat. Tulips need a good winter’s freeze, a sunny location, and winter and spring moisture. They don’t need any extra water in summer, much like the habitat of their home in Euro-Asia. Good drainage is also a key to success – poor drainage will cause the bulbs to rot. By storing energy in its own reservoir (bulb), it can assure the ability to grow and reproduce, even when times are lean. This is why it’s important to leave the green leaves to dry naturally after the tulip blooms. The green leaves are like solar collectors, sending energy to the bulb for storage. Once the foliage is brown, the bulb is resupplied for next spring’s blooms, and the brown foliage may be removed. To give your bulbs an extra boost, an application of organic bulb food in fall and spring can keep your bulbs in top form. If you live in a warmer zone, where the winters are mild, you’ll need to compensate to trick the bulbs into spring blooms.