All About Tulips

By Jacqueline A. Soule, gardening expert and author.

Zoning In

What would spring be without tulips? The simple six-petaled rounded flower form in a gamut of glorious colors is an elegant herald of spring. Few plants offer such quick pleasure as to plant in autumn and yield flowers six months later.

With hundreds of tulip varieties available, how does one determine which varieties are right for your garden? Gardeners and growers use the USDA plant hardiness zone map to match tulip species best suited to their zone. When selecting bulbs from catalogs, read the descriptions and look for your hardiness zone. Specify your zone on the order form. County extension publications for each state also provide fact sheets on the best Tulipa species and varieties for your climate zone.

Once you know your zone and have determined the varieties that thrive there, factors such as flower color, form, height, and bloom time can be considered part of the garden design style.

For the connoisseur collector or those interested in replicating the history of tulips in the garden from their wildflower days to contemporary cultivars, the selection of varieties requires digging deeper into the geography of tulips in their native habitats and to the travels of the tulip in its “dance of domestication” and search for new rooting ground.

The wild tulip, ancestor to the garden tulip, is an alpine plant from Central Asia found clinging to hot desert mountain ridges in summer, buried in bitter cold snow-filled winters, and battered on windswept rocky steppes between northwest China and Turkey among some of the world’s highest, most unreachable, and inhospitable mountain ranges, Tien Shan and Pamir Alai. Tulips survived conditions of extreme temperature fluctuations, perfect drainage, and glaring sunlight. Mimicking these conditions in the garden is key to growing tulips and increasing their abundance. Wild tulips aka species tulips perennialize better than most other tulips. A few species tulips available commercially include:

  • T. batalinii
  • T. biflora
  • T. clusiana
  • T. humilis
  • T. linifolia
  • T. sylvestris
  • T. turkestanica

Traveling and Trading Tulips

For centuries wild tulips were the traveling companions of nomadic mountain tribes as they moved their grazing herds to seasonal pastures. As Turks established permanent settlements and with the rise and spread of the Ottoman Empire, tulips became a component of gardens for royalty and commoner. Turks began selective breeding from specimens collected throughout empire expansion. Traders and foreign diplomats took Turkish bulbs and seeds to Europe and Britain in the 16th century increasing commercial production of tulips there. Dutch colonists brought tulips to New Amsterdam by the 1640s and tulips flourished in William Penn’s colony by 1698. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew tulips on their estates.

Having the latest popular plant in your garden was a status symbol. In the early 17th century the Dutch became enamored with tulips, especially mysterious broken tulips. The flower’s color was broken into feathered and flamed patterns against a white or yellow background. These “designer” tulips were in demand and prices of bulbs soared. The market went out of control as people from all levels of society speculated on tulips. Some fortunes were made but when the market crashed many buyers and sellers went bankrupt. Tulip mania lasted from 1634 to 1637 but did not dampen the Dutch spirit for tulips. Today the Netherlands is the world’s top producer of tulips. Contemporary garden tulips bred for mass bedding displays in public gardens and for cutting gardens include:

  • Darwin tulips
  • Mendel tulips
  • Triumph tulips
  • Darwin hybrids

Tulips lovers would not know that a virus spread by aphids caused broken tulips until the invention of the electron microscope in the 1920s.

Tulip as a Design Tool

Tulips make stunning statements with color when planted in mass for high profile places like parks, civic center, botanical gardens, roadsides, and tulip festivals. However, aside from mass planting schemes of large-flowered varieties for public places, the gardener can get acquainted with the tulip as an individual design tool up close and personal on the home front. As a design tool consider tulips in the following contexts:

  • Foreground splash of spring for evergreen foundation plantings
  • Scatter through a semi-shaded deciduous woodland garden
  • Edge for perennial beds and garden paths
  • Mingle among hardy perennial beds where daylilies and hosta reside
  • Embed tulips to harmonize among the colorful winter stems of deciduous shrubs like dogwood and willow
  • Cluster tulips within beds of cool-season ornamental grasses
  • Interplant tulips with bulbs like daffodils and hyacinths or early annuals like pansies and forget me nots
  • Infuse fallow winter vegetable plots with tulips, perhaps for cutting
  • Create a focal point or portable bedding with containers filled with tulips
  • Underplant tulips throughout sun-loving summer perennial borders
  • Choreograph color mixes of tulips over a three month bloom time using early-, mid-, and late-season varieties
  • Tuck small species tulips in rock gardens, rock borders, and between patio pavers
  • Select drought tolerant species for gravel gardens
  • Add as one tier in a layered mixed or herbaceous border or island bed
  • Cover the ankles of bare roses with color in spring
  • Broadcast and bury bulbs in the lawn in fall for a meadow in spring
  • Trace your child’s name in big letters in the garden and plant tulips to shout out the name in spring

About the Author: Jacqueline A. Soule, garden writer and popular speaker, has produced over 1000 gardening columns for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines. You can find her online at GardeningWithSoule.com

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