Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Bulbs

Wildflower Tulips

by Becky Heath


Wild tulips like 'Apricot Jewel' come back year after year.

Listening to some gardeners talk about it, you would think that a genuinely "perennial" tulip is some kind of holy grail. The dream of a tulip that comes back and multiplies has inspired and then eluded many gardeners. Any skepticism you may have is why I hesitate to make the following claim, but here it is: Wild or species tulips are perennials. Under optimal conditions, they will come back year after year and usually increase in numbers. In many cases, gardeners find themselves pulling out some that have strayed too far.

Species tulips are the wildflowers of the tulip family. The much larger and more extravagant hybrid tulips, bred largely by Dutch horticulturists, are their fancier descendents.

Hardy wild tulips require less work. They are less vulnerable to stormy spring weather, and their generally short stems don't bend in strong winds.

Another appealing feature of species tulips is how they flower. Their flowers usually remain closed through the morning or on cloudy days, showing only the outside color of the petals. When warmed by the sun, they open to reveal another petal color on the inside. It's like having two different flowers in the same space at once. What a treat!

Where to Plant

Species tulips propagate quickest given full sun but tolerate partial shade. The only cultural feature they are persnickety about is well-drained soil. Sandy soil is best. If your garden lacks good drainage, work fully composted pine or fir bark or a similar organic amendment into the soil.

When and How to Plant

The best tulip-planting time depends on where you live. Ideally, wait until the soil temperature is below 60 degrees F. As a general guide, plant in September through early October if you live in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 or 5; October to early November in zones 6 or 7; November to early December in zones 8 and 9; and late December to early January in zone 10 (after refrigerating the bulbs for 8 to 10 weeks).

Set the bulbs in a planting bed or in separate planting holes with their roots or basal plate downward. Plant bulbs 4 to 6 inches below the surface, or three to four times their height. Space the bulbs of most species tulips 2 to 6 inches apart, or three times their width, following the supplier's instructions. Water the bulbs right away to initiate growth. Mulch after planting to help keep soil cool in mild winter areas; mulch after soil freezes in cold-winter areas.

Mild-Winter Tulips

If you live in the South (or mild-winter areas of the West), plant "mild-winter" tulips that thrive in zones 8 through 10: the lady tulip (T. clusiana), the Candia tulip (T. saxatilis), and the Florentine tulip (T. sylvestris). These tulips do not need chilling before planting in these regions. In areas like Tallahassee, Houston, or San Diego, buy these three types of species tulips in the fall, plant them in a cool, shaded location, and forget them. They'll flower in spring and likely for many springs to come.

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