TULIPS STARTED showing up in Western gardens in the reign of Elizabeth -- I don't recall Shakespeare's mentioning them, but then he was a garden snob, preferring wild meadow flowers -- and ever since they have been correctly regarded as major treasures.

Tulips come from the Middle East and Central Asia, that part of the world we learn little of in school, southern parts of the Soviet Union, the mountains of Persia, Bokhara and so on.

In general they bake dry all summer. They know nothing of our summer mug, the effluvia of our foggy bottoms, the cold bleak rains of June, and perhaps this is enough of our catalogue of woe.

No, they stay dry and baked, from the time they finish flowering until the rains of winter. Suddenly, in early spring, they emerge and burst into such vermilions as the world does not otherwise know.

Then the dry hot winds arrive and they wither, the tulips retreat to their snug (often fur-lined) storage bulbs to await once more the winter rains.

It is remarkable they consent to grow at all for us. Or for the Dutch, who are the great masters of their cultivation.

Today we must consider -- a gardener really must sit down and do something about this -- the startling value of certain tulips, especially the Darwin Hybrids.

The older Darwins were developed in the last century from tulips surviving in Europe from earlier centuries. For almost three centuries the tulips favored in western gardens were "broken"; that is, the basic color of the flower was interrupted by flames and streaks of another color, giving quite rich and bizarre effects.

The time came, however, when it occurred to gardeners that tulips need not be grown merely for the bizarre and flamed patterns of the individual flower, but were even handsomer when the color was solid and unbroken. So there was a little flurry to collect or retrieve the old tulips of solid color, and from them emerged the Darwins.

The flowers of the Darwins had sturdy stems, not pliable and curved like the old Cottage varieties, and the flowers had a squared-off look at the base, instead of curved and cuplike.

The Darwins still exist as a class of tulips, though no sane gardner would try to pronounce on the present differences between Darwins, Cottages, and Breeders, since the classes of these late April and early May-flowering tulips are not indistinct.

In general, Cottages are thought of as more cup-shaped, and blessed with bright sparkling colors. Darwins are heavier, and Breeders run to purple and fawn combinations or rose flushed with gold -- rich and often sweet-scented.

But now the Darwin Hybrids are something quite different.

The result from crosses between the Darwins and the wild vermillion Tulipa fosteriana from Asia. This may be the place to say it was rather discouraging to the Dutch, after three and a half centuries of breeding garden tulips, to discover in the wild a tulip larger, more richly colored and more dazzling, that any in cultivation.

The tulip we commonly grow in gardens as 'Red Emperor's is nothing more than a selection from the wild stock of T.fosteriana. It has no garden blood in it, it is a pure wilding.

I have muttered and grumbled here about the Dutch taste in daffodils, comparing them as unfavorably as possible with the English and Irish daffodil breeders, but I humbly acknowledge the Dutch preeminence in tulips.

Not only have they raised this flower to quite undreamed of heights of beauty, they have also improved its weak constitution past recognition. They have also mastered to perfection the mass growing of the bulbs, and they pioneered and still lead in the area of bulb curing and storage, and they do all this so efficiently that their tulips are marketed through the world at reasonable prices.

When the Dutch took one look at the wild T.fosteriana, they determined to breed its size, its remarkable constitution, its flamboyance into the garden tulips that already existed.

They crossed the Darwins with it, and the race is called Darwin Hybrids, but the critical parent is not the Darwin but the fosteriana.

Please do not imagine the Darwin Hybrids capture all the beauty of the tulip as a garden flower. Far from it. You will not find in the Darwin Hybrids the rich purple and bronze sweetness of 'Jessey' or the pink purity of 'Smiling Queen' and so on.

But what you do find is something that did not exist before: enormous flowers (compared to most garden tulips) that bloom with the midseason or late daffodils, some days before most older garden tulips do, but later than 'Red 'emperor.' And not only enormous flowers, but a reasonable and good color range of primrose, canary-mustard, and (the glory of the tribe) scarlets.

Even in damp Washington, I had had some of these Darwin Hybrids produce enormous flowers from bulbs planted outdoors and left untouched for five years.

I have not grown all the Darwin Hybrids, but perhaps 12 sorts over a period of years, and can say my favorite is 'Jewel of Spring.' This is an ivory-yellow, yellow but not brilliant like a teenager's Mustang, of colossal size on stems nearly waist high. (Officially 26 inches, but often taller.)

The petals are edged with a thread of red so slight it is not noticed at the distance of a few feet, and for all practical purposes the tulip is solid buff-primrose. It is just the color that blends beautifully with any other.

My first acquaintance with it some years ago, and its enthusiastic reception by those who plan the flowers of London parks, and the unmistakable affection with which it was referred to in the beginning by some of the Dutch tulip authorities, all led me to suspect it was a tulip among tulips, and the years have only increased my admiration.

It is a sport -- a mere (and wonderful) mutation of color, from the Darwin Hybrid called 'Gudoshnik,' a creamy peach flecked and nutmegged with rose. I like it very much, but it is a variable flower, yellow inside, and sometimes it is rather light, sometimes dark. This upsets some gardeners who call it unstable, but I find it very beautiful, and it has every good quality a tulip should have, and unlike most tulips it can last in beauty outdoors for a full three weeks.

A fine scarlet is 'Apeldoorn,' one of the first varieties put on the market. A great authority on these flowers observed several years ago that he still thought it his favorite of the Darwin Hybrid scarlets, standing up to weather uncommonly well.

'Golden Apeldoorn' is a sport from it, a deep yellow, and 'Beauty of Apeldoorn' is another sport, yellow but prettily stippled with carmine.

'President Kennedy' is a full rich yellow, sometimes flushed scarlet but usually not.

Among the older scarlets are 'Dover,' 'Lefeber's Favorite,' 'Oxford,' 'General Eisenhower,' and 'Holland's Glory,' all of them fine. Indeed, I have never seen any Darwin Hybrid on the market that was not worthy of a place in the most select garden.

Does this mean the Darwin tulips are no longer worth growing? God forbid anybody should think so. They bloom a good week or 10 days later than the hybrids, and have far wider color range.

The standard of Dutch tulips is now so high that I would not hesitate to walk into any display of bulbs and buy at random.

But I know all too well the size of town gardens, the limited time many people can spend on them, and the terrible itch for gorgeous color as early as possible in the spring.

I would suggest to any new gardener the acquisition of 'Red Emperor,' the great wild scarlet, and its soft yellow seedling 'Jewel of Spring.' The emperor comes first, then the jewel. Five or six bulbs of each (a hundred if possible, but usually there is not that much space) will be greatly rewarding.

They will cost less than a sandwich and a beer.

They are best planted outdoors in early November. To get it all quite straight, here are the matching orders: without fail, repeat, without fail, you are to try a few bulbs of the Darwin Hybrids this fall; then if space and money permit, you may grow hundreds of others, but you are not allowed (not in this column) to go one more spring without these gorgeous creatures.