WILD TULIPS are bright creatures reminding me of brisk terriers, except better behaved.
For years the small tulips were rare and costly; now that everything is costly, they seem cheap, and even if they never bloomed they would be worth getting merely for the high delight of examining the bulbs.
Nothing is neater in the entire world than these small bulbs, often smaller than a butterbean, wrapped in their natural skin or tunic which is sometimes like satin, sometimes like a russet pear, and sometimes lined with a soft yellow-brown fur that sticks out the top of the bulb a trifle.
All the wild tulips I have tried bloom roughly with the daffodils, April being their great month.
They are best planted in the first half of November, but often the bulb merchants sell out before then, so I like to get them as soon as I can, especially since it is so agreeable to peer at the different shapes in the few weeks before they must be planted outdoors.
The ideal site for them is a sunny slope to the south or west, and if it bakes hard all summer, fine.
They are not suited at all to shady woodlands; they have nothing to do with deep woodsy peaty soil that suits camellias.
Sometimes people have a bleak sunny bare place near a garage, or by a back-door step, and such sites are good for the tulips, though life in an ordinary border suits them will enough if it's not too damp in summer.
They do not care much for having luxuriant plants flop over the earth where they are planted, even when their own leaves have died in May. They do not mind the golden thyme or other modest plants crawling over them, and portulaca does well since it flowers all summer when the tulips are gone and only comes back from self-sown seeds when the tulip foliage is passing off in May.
Too great an issue has been made in the past of the cultural requirements of wild tulips, so the novice might think they were difficult. They are not.
When bulbs are rare, people always suppose they are difficult to grow, and of course the English, with their frightful climate and general failure of sunlight, would have more trouble with bulbs from sunny lands than we. Since the English are the world's best gardeners and garden writers, their disappointments with some of the tulips frightened many gardeners of sunny regions who in fact never had any reason for alarm.
You must know that although the small wild tulips burst forth in vermilion, mustard, sulphur, white and lemon, they are no plants for making a great spread of colors, and most of their flowers are small, like almonds.
On the other hand, this means you can get a good clump of them in a space no larger than a saucer of a salad plate.
They are ideal in rock gardens - if anyone is still so reckless and extravagant as to possess one - and they do not mind clay. Often I work a couple of handfuls of sand into heavy clay loam when I plant.
The best-known wild tulip is Tulipa clusiana, which has narrow bluish-gray leaves and a slender stalk 14 inches high, holding the flower which seems broadly striped vertically because its petals alternate the flower opens flat annd is all white inside, but like other tulips, it closes at night, again showing the soft color of its outer petals.
Once I grew a patch the size of a bathroom rug with this tulip, planted seven inches deep, and over the tops of those bulbs a batch of hooppetticoat daffodils, about four inches deep, and over those a gang of crocures (C. chrysanthus) about two inches deep.
Over the years, the crocuses objected, dying out here and there but marshaling their forces toward the edge of the patch. The wild daffodils diminished slightly in the first four years, then held steady. The tulips did not increase much, but never dwindled.
This tulip, which a writer in a Royal Horticultural Society article said was sterile, commonly seeds (doubtless the result of our sunnier climate) and I had a friend who was startled to see this tulip blooming all along the edges of a small drainage trough in a border of irises.
The tulip seeds floated down with the rains, and in a few years (perhaps four) began to bloom. I mention this to show that we need not panic for our wild tulips every time it rains.
Another curious tulip is T. acuminata, which for some incredible reason I have never grown. It has smallish blooms with proportionately long, twisted petals of gold and red. When I was a young gardener this tulip was costly, and the petals were said to look like fingernails of Chinese ladies. Perhaps the price and the description turned me against the flower.
Now the bulbs are quitereasonable. The flowers suggest a Santa Barbara girl who gave up tennis for macrame, that is, they look a bit odd, as if they had tried drugs and lived in Tangier a while, yet they are interesting.
I used to wonder why anybody would fool with T. tarda, daystemon as they call it now. It is only two or three inches high and its flowers are star-shaped and green outside, but yellow and white inside. First of all, it sometimes grows to six inches instead of two, but mainly this is a fine example of a modest plant whose virtues are never quite captured in print.
I first grew it only to try to comprehend why merchants kept selling it. Now I know. It is one of those plants you never want to be without. It is as exuberant and vigorous as it is small. It costs only a few cents, and looks fine against cobblestones.
Now, T. batalinii (all these tulips are from various parts of Asia Minor, by the way) is five inches high and slightly ballon-shaped, of soft yellow a bit deeper than primrose, sometimes flushed with a madder-type rose. The long-rare T. urumiensis is somewhat similar, a bit more bronzed, as I remember it dimly.
T. kaufmanniana and its endless hybrids bloom with the hyacinths, early in the daffodil season, and it comes in many patterns of rose-madder, cherrry, red, ivory, sulphur and gold, opening out flat (as wild tulips generally do) in the sun. Its floweres are relatively large and suggest water lilies against a nest of leaves. The early tulips at the northwest corner of the National Geographic Building in recent years have been varieties of this tulip and T. greigfi, which has leaves striped and mottled with madder-maroon.
There are a number of other wildlings, every one desirable to try, and T. praestans has clusters of vermilion blooms, shocking in brilliance and clarity. T. pulchella violac is short, relatively big in bloom, and an amazing rich soft magenta. T. eichlerii is a bit fatter than T. praestans and blooms a bit later and its vermilion is not quite so brilliant, though it would make a fire engine seem pale.
Please do not sneer at any wild tulip unmentioned here, or assume it is less good than those I have named.
One of my favorite flowers is T. chrysantha, almond-shaped, 10 inches high, soft yellow with alternate petals soft red on the outside. Most gardeners like it, of course, and then go on to the next thing, but I faint dead away every spring when it blooms.
Or at least I admire it more than most gardeners do. Few indulgences are painless or so relatively wholesome as $5 or $10 spent on wild tulips. Five of this, 10 of that - you can get quite an assortment of the kinds mentioned for a modest sum, and they last for some years, many of them more than 10 or 15 years without lifting the bulbs or spraying or even fertilizing.
The annual chrysanthemum show of the Old Dominion and Potomac Chrysanthemum Societies will be held at 4:30 to 9 p.m. Oct. 29 and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Oct. 30 in the Falls Church Community Center, 223 Little Falls St. This is the 12th joint show of the Societies.