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