Tulips With Staying Power

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, May 1, 2008

I saw my first clump of tulips on Saint Patrick's Day, of a variety called, appropriately, the First. I have single late varieties still looking fresh in my garden.

The spring has been cool and lingering, the best kind, but the length of tulip season is also a product of the amazing variety of wild tulips and the sheer numbers of hybrids bred over the past four centuries. All this genetic diversity yields a tulip season in Washington that lasts a good seven weeks.

As the flowers fade, the plaintive cry is, how can I make sure they will return next year? Move to Holland, perhaps.

One of the strangest sights I have seen was of a bulb farmer in Lisse riding a specialized tractor along rows of lipstick-red tulips, cutting off the heads of the freshly opened flowers. It was drizzling, and hundreds of scarlet petals stuck to the machinery. It seemed like an act of vandalism, but there was method to the madness. By preventing the flowers from going to seed, the farmer was making sure the bulbs were putting energy into making more bulbs.

Other factors ensure that tulips regenerate year to year, particularly the practice of lifting them in June and storing them in climate-controlled warehouses. Unlike other spring bulbs, which last year to year, the tulip has to make a new bulb from inside the one you plant, which fades away. Lacking optimum conditions, the tulip peters out or reblooms weakly in subsequent years. By keeping the bulbs in the ground and then watering other plants all summer, you create conditions in our warm clay soil that encourage the bulbs to rot away.

So my advice is to pull them and throw them on the compost heap. Unless, that is, you have tulips known to persist in our region. Generally the closer a variety is to its wildling ancestor, the more likely it will be to return. These perennial tulips are inherently smaller and with flower forms and colors that might surprise those who have not yet come to know them.

The lady tulip, Tulipa clusiana, has yielded a number of varieties with slightly different markings, or saturation of color, but they all share the attribute of a delicate, pointed red-and-yellow flower that opens to form a star by day and closes to a cup at night. Cynthia has pinkish-red petals. Tubergen's Gem is a stronger red, and larger. Tinka is beautifully striped, but my favorite is Lady Jane, which is more pink and cream than yellow and red, and just glorious. I saw it in the Rock Garden at the New York Botanical Garden last week, along with some other diminutive beauties. Honky Tonk is so inelegant a name for so dainty a bulb. It is a variety of T. linifolia that is creamy with a faint blush.

I was also struck by a small, tight clump of sunny tulips called Bronze Charm, aptly described in one of my bulb books as sulfur yellow, feathered apricot-bronze. It is a T. batalinii variety.

Jody Payne, curator of the Rock Garden, said three other species would also come back reliably: the white and yellow, fragrant and star-shaped T. tarda; the yellow and carmine T. altaica; and the T. acuminata, the classic Turkish tulip with narrow, twisted petals. Of all those small wild types, Payne most likes Little Beauty, a variety with red-pink petals with a blue base.

One of the most striking is the blue-eyed tulip, with a tongue-twisting botanical name I include to help you find it: T. humilis Alba Coerulea Oculata. It is blue-white with a steel-blue base.

As obscure as many of these sound, they are readily available in general and specialty bulb catalogues, which are now coming through the mail for fall planting. The key to getting them to reflower is to put them in free-draining soil and in a sunny location. My Cynthia is in more shade than it wants, and the slender stems snake around, but it has multiplied thanks to the excellent drainage.

These delicate but persistent flowers bring another dimension to the world of tulips. As I wandered the Perennial Garden at the botanical garden, I reminded myself that it's all right to splurge on the larger-flowered hybrids and just pull them after the show. Payne stopped to admire the classic lily-flowered tulip Red Shine, its petals shaded scarlet, the pointed tips bent gracefully backward.

Payne really likes Uncle Tom, not one of her relatives but a peony-flowered tulip in maroon-red. Then there's Gavota, of which I would like a lotta. The outside is a deep plum with yellow margins. It catches the eye from 20 feet away, so different from the tiny species of tulips that you have to kneel before to sniff. There's always next year.

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