Encourage Your Tulips To Come Back

As many gardeners know, daffodils are dependable "repeaters," perennials that return year after year with more and more blooms.

But tulips are somewhat different. The tulip, for all its spectacular beauty, is one of the easiest flowers to grow successfully in the garden. Plant a bulb in fall and even a novice gardener can expect to see a beautiful flower come spring. But getting a tulip to perform well in the second or third year is another story.

The tulip as duly noted in horticultural texts is a perennial flower. This means that a tulip should be expected to return and bloom year after year. But for all intents and purposes this isn't always the case. Most tulip-lovers content themselves with treating it as an annual, re-planting again each fall.

But if tulips are perennial, then why don't they always behave as perennials? The answer to this pressing horticultural puzzle is surprisingly simple.

"Tulips are indeed true perennials," explains Frans Roozen, technical director of the International Flower Bulb Center in Hillegom, the Netherlands. "Getting them to bloom in your garden year after year is no problem, if your garden happens to be located in the foothills of the Himalayas, or the steppes of eastern Turkey."

According to Roozen, the tulip - an oriental native first introduced to the western world some 400 years ago - is at its perennial best in conditions that match the cold winters and hot, dry summers of its native regions. When asked how they have managed to thrive in Holland, one of the wettest countries on earth, he smiles and says, "That takes a bit of know-how."

The Dutch Touch

Roozen explains that Holland's sandy soil, and the proven ability of the Dutch to perform miracles of hydraulic engineering (meaning they can get water to do just about anything they want), actually offer some of the most excellent growing conditions for tulip bulbs on the planet. To get the bulbs to not only return but to multiply (sort of a prerequisite for supporting an ongoing industry) is a bit more problematic.

"Professional Dutch growers subject their plant stock to an ingenious series of heat and humidity treatments each summer before planting," explains Roozen. Developed over the past 400 years, this manipulation of temperature and humidity levels allows growers today to perfectly replicate the tulip's native habitat."

Red Darwin TulipsRed Darwin Tulips

By the time the bulbs are tucked into the sandy Dutch soil for their winter's sleep (and Mother Nature's "cold treatment") the bulbs have been fooled into thinking they've been through another summer drought in the Himalayas!

This is why Dutch growers always have scads of tulip bulbs to sell each fall, and the rest of us, left to our own climactic devices, have dwindling stocks.

"Don't try this at home," warns Roozen, "the process for temperature- treating bulbs is quite tricky, requiring years of experience and expensive climate control systems such as the ones you see in Dutch bulb sheds."

  1. Red and White Triumph Tulip Bulbs Candy Cane Mix, Tulipa, Triumph Tulips

    An all time favorite mix of candy cane colors, brilliant reds and whites come into bloom in mid spring. Triumph Tulips Candy Cane Mix lights up any tulip garden with firecracker colo...

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    Candy Cane Triumph Tulip Mix Triumph Tulip Cand Cane Mix Tulipa Candy Cane Mix
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    An all time favorite mix of candy cane colors, brilliant reds and whites come into bloom in mid spring. Triumph Tulips Candy Cane Mix lights up any tulip garden with firecracker colors.
  2. Snow White Single Late Tulip, Tulipa Snow White

    There are few flowers as simple and sophisticated as a single white tulip, and 'Snow White' Single Late Tulip, with tall stems and deep green sword-like foliage, is quite possibly th...

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    There are few flowers as simple and sophisticated as a single white tulip, and 'Snow White' Single Late Tulip, with tall stems and deep green sword-like foliage, is quite possibly the queen of all. This late cultivar extends the tulip season in the garden and adds a touch of elegance and effortless contrast to your most creative spring color experiments. An excellent choice for spring bouquets. (Tulipa)
  3. Warm Glow Tulip Bulb Collection

    Featuring 30 high-quality bulbs, the Warm Glow Tulip Collection brings radiant red, golden orange and blushing yellow blooms to the mid spring garden. Including 10 each of 'Parade' D...

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    Warm Glow Tulip Bulb Collection Tulip Tulipa
    $29.99 Sale $24.99
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    Featuring 30 high-quality bulbs, the Warm Glow Tulip Collection brings radiant red, golden orange and blushing yellow blooms to the mid spring garden. Including 10 each of 'Parade' Darwin Tulips, 'Jimmy' Triumph Tulips, and 'Akebono' Darwin Tulips, this colorful group features easy growers that tolerate both full-sun and part-shade areas. (Tulipa)
  4. Purple Flag Triumph Tulip, Tulipa Purple Flag

    With clear purple tones, a delicate silky texture, and a versatile height, 'Purple Flag' Triumph Tulip proves that simplicity can be the most powerful tool in the gardener’s handbo...

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    Purple Flag Triumph Tulip Purple Flag Triumph Tulip Tulipa Purple Flag
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    With clear purple tones, a delicate silky texture, and a versatile height, 'Purple Flag' Triumph Tulip proves that simplicity can be the most powerful tool in the gardener’s handbook. This mid-spring tulip with deep green foliage is your answer for easy, vibrant color pairings. Underplant with low-growing annuals, or simply provide a rich backdrop for other patterned tulips. A stunning cut flower. (Tulipa)
  5. Pink Single Early Tulip Bulbs Apricot Beauty, Tulipa, Single Early Tulip

    One of America's most popular tulips with luscious, soft salmon rose flowers tinged with light-apricot edges. Apricot Beauty's understated elegance is enhanced by its delicate, pale-...

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    Apricot Beauty Single Early Tulip Single Early Tulip Apricot Beauty Tulipa Apricot Beauty
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    Per Bag of 8
    One of America's most popular tulips with luscious, soft salmon rose flowers tinged with light-apricot edges. Apricot Beauty's understated elegance is enhanced by its delicate, pale-green base. Beautiful in the vase and ideal for forcing, this tulip carries a sweet scent.
  6. Single Late Tulip Bulb Mix, Tulipa, Single Late Tulips

    Look at the colors! Single Late Tulips have some of the biggest blooms and brightest colors available. Their blooms come to life after other tulips have begun to fade. What a beaut...

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    Single Late Tulip Bulb Mix Single Late Tulip Mix Tulipa Single Late Mix
    $10.65 Sale $8.52
    Per Bag of 10
    Look at the colors! Single Late Tulips have some of the biggest blooms and brightest colors available. Their blooms come to life after other tulips have begun to fade. What a beautiful way to extend your bloom season!
  7. Pink and Blue Baby Shower Bulb Mix, Baby Shower Mix of Tulips and Hyacinths

    Beautiful and Fragrant. Pastel pink tulips bloom with blue hyacinths. Precious flowers brings joy just like the Stork!...

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    Baby Shower Mix Baby Shower Mix Of Tulips & Hyacinths Baby Shower Mix Of Tulipa & Hyacinthus
    $9.99 Sale $8.49
    Per Bag of 8
    Beautiful and Fragrant. Pastel pink tulips bloom with blue hyacinths. Precious flowers brings joy just like the Stork!
  8. Parrot Tulip Bulbs Mix, Tulipa, Parrot Tulips

    Huge, bright-colored flowers with petals that are feathered, curled, twisted or waved. Add this Parrot Tulip mix to your garden for a truly unique show. Spectacular in bouquets....

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    Parrot Tulip Mix Parrot Tulip Mix Tulipa Parrot Mix
    $8.65 Sale $7.35
    Per Bag of 6
    Huge, bright-colored flowers with petals that are feathered, curled, twisted or waved. Add this Parrot Tulip mix to your garden for a truly unique show. Spectacular in bouquets.

How Home Gardeners Can Get Top Performance from Tulips

For Americans who would like to get top performance from their tulips, Roozen provides the following simple tips and guidelines.

  • Choose tulips that are marked good for "naturalizing" or "perennializing."
  • Generally species or botanical tulips and their hybridized strains are a good bet. These are cultivated bulbs that have not been extensively cross-bred and thus are very close to the bulb as found in nature.

Though cross-breeding or hybridizing sometimes diminishes a tulip's ability to "perennialize," other times it enhances this ability. Among hybrids that perennialize best are all the Darwin Hybrids in red, rose, orange, yellow and two-tone colors. Emperor tulips and some Triumph Tulips also perennialize well. All "species" tulips, the wild ones, are totally perennial, as are many of the "minor" bulbs including crocus.

Darwin Tulip MixDarwin Tulip Mix
  • Plant bulbs in a well-drained area. This is always good advice for planting bulbs, and is essential for naturalizing or perennializing. Wet soil promotes fungus and disease and can even rot bulbs. Adding organic matter such as well rotted cows manure, compost or peat moss can also help facilitate drainage.
  • Plant tulip bulbs deep -- about eight inches deep, measuring from the base of the bulb. Note: If you add mulch to the surface after planting, include its depth as a part of your overall planting depth. (For instance, 5 inches deep in soil plus 3 inches of mulch = 8 inches deep.)
  • Water bulbs after planting. Though standing water is not good for bulbs, sufficient water is necessary to get them growing. Water is especially important right after planting to ensure that the plants develop a strong root system before going into winter dormancy.
  • In the spring, after the blossoms have passed their peak, clip off the flower heads and allow the green foliage to die back. This technique lets the plant put all its energy into building a strong bulb for next season.
  • Fertilize in fall and spring. For those who treat tulips as annuals - as many gardeners do with great success and satisfaction - no fertilizer is necessary. Healthy Dutch bulbs (which are not seeds, but living plants), have more than enough food stored up to ensure a vigorous bloom the first season. But if a come-back performance is desired, low nitrogen fertilizer such as well-rotted cow manure, or special bulb fertilizer is recommended at fall planting time and each fall thereafter. If you did not fertilize in fall, in spring, as the shoots first appear, you can add a high nitrogen, fast-release fertilizer can help promote future performance.

Following these simple guidelines will increase the success of many homeowners in improving the repeat performance of their tulips.

But regardless of whether it's the magnificent crop of color from the first year's planting, or the slightly diminished but still lovely stand of flowers planted a few years back, the tulip remains one of the world's best loved flowers. And fall is the time to plant them.

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