Tulip Review

If you want the best way to bring colour, life, optimism, joy and conviviality to a spring garden, you cannot do without tulips. The variety of colours is unbeatable with something for every taste, from chic and sombre almost-blacks and royal purples through crimson reds and fiery golds to pastel pinks and whites. I have always found it a challenge to choose my bulbs for autumn planting, and I suspect I won’t be alone in this. If selecting the best colours from a choice of literally thousands were not hard enough, the range of shapes, heights and sizes adds another dimension to the challenge. Little wonder how easy it is to either over-order or just give up in despair.

IMG_2326

I originally began this post with a sentence declaring that tulips were the ‘cheapest and easiest’ way to add colour to a spring garden, and then I deleted that sentence because tulip bulbs are not cheap when you come to think about it, especially not the ones that disappear after a season, nor the ones that get eaten by squirrels or mice, nor the ones that simply don’t appear for some unknown reason. Unlike other bulbs, tulips are most reluctant to increase their numbers, and only a handful of varieties can be relied on to come back year on year. As for declaring that tulips are ‘easy’ to grow, one has to remember that planting those hundreds of tulip bulbs every autumn can be back-breaking and repetitive; you need to plant so many of them to make a decent impression.

The quality of the bulbs you buy is important. Cheap, puny ones are usually a false economy because so often they come up blind or not at all. Not all bulb suppliers are equal; and even the better quality companies can get things wrong. By the time six months have passed and you are wondering why a patch of ‘Ballerina’ has appeared in your garden while there is not a ‘Charming Lady’ in sight, it seems too late to contact your supplier with a complaint. Challenges aside, tulips remain in my mind an essential key to bringing colour and joy to a spring garden, and with some judicious planning (and the wisdom of hindsight) it is possible to minimise the pitfalls and heartache while ensuring yourself a three month stretch of glorious, bouncy, elegant, exuberant tulips.

IMG_2305
Not a ‘Charming Lady’ in sight …

One thing I have learned is to take careful notes and lots of photographs during the tulip season, and store them somewhere that can easily be found when the bulb catalogues come out in August. Heaven knows but when you are surrounded by the florid hues of asters and dahlias you won’t be able to remember what spring feels like, much less care. And remembering what spring feels like is key to making insightful choices from the catalogues in order to recreate or even improve upon your garden of the springtime just gone.

Well, my safe storage place for my thoughts and photographs on tulips is the post you are reading at this moment. I’m going to talk about the varieties of tulips that I’ve tried over the past couple few years (successes, failures, surprises) and use it to help me decide what to order in three months’ time.

IMG_2132
Tulipa turkestanica

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the earliest tulip to appear and one of my most favourite tulips is the species tulip, Tulipa turkestanica, a heavenly little white and yellow burst of petals. For two years in a row I have filled two whole window boxes full of them so that I could enjoy them from indoors through the window, and they lifted my soul every time I looked at them. They would also look good in a pot with Muscari and primroses (pale pink or yellow) and the biggest bulbs can be lifted and stored once the leaves have died back.

IMG_0155
‘Purissima’ and ‘Golden Apeldoorn’
IMG_0270
‘Golden Apeldoorn’

‘Purissima’ is the best white tulip I have tried so far. A large single white tulip that flowers in April, its generous petals open in sunshine to reveal a splash of egg-yolk yellow at its heart. Like so many tulips it expires with great melodrama, the petals dropping one by one to the ground like enormous tulip teardrops. I thought it far superior to the double white ‘Mount Tacoma’ which I bought to take over from ‘Purissima’ but which was frankly a little dull. ‘Purissima’ looks wonderful in the border with ‘Apricot Beauty’, and would also look good with a yellow tulip such as ‘Golden Apeldoorn’, which flowers at about the same time. Both ‘Purissima’ and ‘Golden Apeldoorn’ made a good return two years in a row; however, I was disappointed that not a single ‘Apricot Beauty’ came back for a second innings. In my opinion, the latter is a lovely enough tulip to be worth the bother and expense of buying afresh every year, and vies with my old favourite, ‘Menton’, for the prize of best apricot tulip.

IMG_2289
‘Purissima’ and ‘Apricot Beauty’
IMG_2281
‘Apricot Beauty’

‘Menton’ is in a class of its own: a generous, peachy head sitting with remarkable poise on its tall, slim stem, a thing of exotic beauty that belies its sturdiness in a strong spring breeze. Such a carefully bred flower so far removed from the species should not be expected to grace us with its presence two years in a row, and yet twice mine returned, becoming one or two fewer each year; but I was so gratified that I forgave its eventual disappearance.

IMG_0273
‘Menton’
IMG_0080
‘Menton’

I was surprised at how much I liked ‘Prinses Irene’ (sometimes spelled Princess), a stocky, vibrant and vivid orange tulip with minky striped markings on the outer petals, which I planted around our circular brick terrace. One of my suppliers was giving her away for free in 2017, and she was even better value for coming back for another innings this year. Such a short-stemmed tulip also looked good in containers with Muscari: you just can’t beat orange with blue.

I adored ‘Bruine Wimpel’, in delicious shades of mink and rust, which I planted in pots, then collected and stored over winter before adding to my chaotic cutting bed with not a hope that something so classy would show up to the party two years in a row. To my enormous surprise, it reappeared this year in good abundance. ‘Bruine Wimpel’ is a good single alternative to the florists’ favourite double ‘La Belle Epoch’, which was everywhere on Instagram last year but can be so hard to get hold of.

IMG_2298
‘La Belle Epoch’
IMG_4121
‘Ballerina’

Given that I do not prefer lily-shaped tulips and certainly hadn’t ordered it, the grace and beauty of ‘Ballerina’ was a pleasant surprise, especially alongside the dark heads of ‘Paul Scherer’, the latter first seen at Shepherd House Gardens where we were reliably informed that it is a good returner – in fact, both ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Paul Scherer’ returned in excellent spirits this following spring. Although almost-black tulips are extremely striking, it is important to pair them with a worthy background to do them justice. ‘Ballerina’, on the other hand, is the kind of tulip that would look good next to anything, and I can see myself buying more and spreading them around the garden.

IMG_4124
‘Paul Scherer’
IMG_2307
‘Antraciet’

‘Antraciet’ had dusky red double heads and looked old-fashioned and expensive like a well aged wine, and returned beautifully for a second year. At the cheap and jolly end of the tulip spectrum, a Gardener’s World special offer of a ‘Bumper Border Mix’ of tulips for a fiver, thrown haphazardly into a large plastic pot and shoved in a corner, became the prettiest thing in the garden. It was so successful that it made me wonder if I shouldn’t just buy five bags of these at a third of the cost, make up several generous pots of them and sit back to enjoy the show thirty or forty pounds better off.

IMG_4152
‘Antraciet’
IMG_2256
Cheap and cheerful special offer

Tulips that were less to my taste included ‘Brazil’, which I’d bought in the patriotic hope of its being tall and tanned and dark and lovely, but sadly it turned out to be short, swarthy, sallow, and clearly living on a diet of beer and churrasco, though it did return for a second year running and has some interesting hues as it fades. ‘Blue Parrot’ and ‘Nightclub’ came out so late that the tulip party was pretty much over by the time they did (although ‘Nightclub’ was admittedly worth the wait); neither returned for a second year. ‘Chato’, which incidentally means ‘boring’ in Portuguese, was anything but boring. A remarkable lipstick pink, it is gay and delightful and just a little too flouncy for my tastes, though again returned in the border for a second year (I think about three returned).

IMG_2351
‘Nightclub’
IMG_4154
‘Chato’

Tulipa saxatilis was pretty enough, but did not return and was not a patch on its classier sister, T. turkestanica, while T. humilisOdalisque’ didn’t bother to flower at all. But the biggest disappointment was the non-appearance of ‘Charming Lady’, which I was so looking forward to.

IMG_4115

So my strategy for ordering this autumn will look something like this:

  1. Buy the best quality I can afford
  2. Order early
  3. Store the bulbs correctly until planting time (after the first frost)
  4. Don’t spend too long agonising over flowering times. Just ensure that any chosen as partners will flower at the same time.
  5. Keep to tried and tested favourites that return: ‘Purissima’, ‘Menton’, ‘Ballerina’, ‘Antraciet’, ‘Bruine Wimpel’, and the non-returner ‘Apricot Beauty’.
  6. Try at least one new cultivar.
  7. For bulk planting in pots, buy special-offer tulips.

I would love to find out what your favourite tulips are. Which cultivars do you buy year after year or which in your experience perennate reliably? Which have you never tried before but are planning to buy this autumn? Or have you given up on the fuss and bother of tulips in favour of less needy bulbs such as daffodils and muscari?

IMG_2265

 

19 thoughts on “Tulip Review

    1. Thank you ever so much, so glad you enjoyed them! Sad you can’t grow tulips … You must feel as I do looking at heat-loving plants like zinnias and aubergines. An avocado tree would save me a few bob too … Sigh.

  1. I am passionate about tulips so loved reading your review. The one thing to remember about tulips is where they originate from – Turkey; they hate being wet in summer, in my summer dry climate in central Italy (where I don’t irrigate) my tulips have been returning each year; some for as long as 10 years. Also many of mine do split to produce more stems from the original bulb. It isn’t the case with all of them but I have Jan Reis that each original bulb is now producing 8 flowering stems, they actually need dividing as you would Narcissus. Even in the UK if you have very free draining soil and you don’t irrigate your tulips should return regularly. Lovely photographs again, you are very talented.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comments, Christina, and I’m so glad you enjoyed reading my review. Wow, what luck that your tulips behave so magnificently. I could only dream of dividing my tulips, because of course Scotland could hardly be further from Turkey weather-wise and the sky does most of my irrigation whether or not I ask it to. So, as with all climates, some you win, some you lose. I have heard many, many folk wax lyrical over Jan Reis. Perhaps that is the next one I should be trying.

      1. I think Jan Reies does well for most people. I forgot to say that I agree with you completely about buying good quality. Last autumn I didn’t buy from Peter Nyssen but from local suppliers. Many didn’t grow at all and others where not as labelled. PN is great quality at a good price if you buy 50 of one variety. Or get a group of friends together if you can’t use that many.

  2. Thank you for this timely post. I’ve bought and planted tulips for the first time in my present garden but don’t know a lot about growing them. I’m a bit disappointed to realise I probably won’t have them for more that a couple of seasons, if I’m lucky. I was hoping that t. Clusiana and t. Kaufmanniana would naturalise! I also planted Melton and Queen of Night, plus a few cheap ones from the local hardware. Bruine Wimple is a lovely tulip- I’ve seen it mentioned on a number of posts.

    1. Well I think you should have decent luck with naturalising the species tulips (T. clusiana and kaufmanniana) as long as they are in a sunny spot and stay dry during summer. The big hybridised ones, well that’s pot luck. It’s a matter of trial and error as to which survive year on year, plus learning from the success others have had. Otherwise you have to accept the expense as with any annual, or reduce what you buy to cut your losses. It’s fun experimenting though, and of course a good photo immortalises any favourite flower, however fleeting its lifespan!

  3. My education in the perennial character of some tulips came from my father’s garden in western Virginia, which I took over after his death. He had planted mainly the types recommended as having the best chance of persisting here (Darwin hybrids and single lates), and planted them very deeply in our awful orange clay “soil”. To my amazement, some of them reappeared for the next five years; it’s worth noting that they were years with longer than usual periods of summer drought. The last to fade away was ‘Menton’, with ‘Grand Style’ a close second. (GS is a deep rosy pink with apricot highlights.)

    I’ve gone in much more heavily for Narcissus, because I’m just not willing to spend the money and effort to replenish tulips, but have experimented with a few of the longer-lasting varieties. Of these by far the most impressive performer has been ‘Maureen’, a tall creamy white that is still coming back a decade after planting. Another notably persistent one was ‘Burgundy Lace’, a red fringed tulip, also late in the season. ‘Maureen’s durability is partly due to its site, a slightly raised bed facing southwest, and kept dry in summer by the foliage of a daylily. Except for plants in their first several years of establishment, or in rare cases of prolonged drought, this garden gets no additional water beyond what nature provides (averaging 35 inches, but distributed randomly rather than predictably).

  4. Purportedly, the best perennial tulips are species, but I’ve had luck with kaufmannia, parrots and viridiflora varieties. So long as the rodents don’t eat them! I suspect that it is our moist climate that dooms us. If I was wishing to experiment, I’d dig them up when they went dormant and store them dry until fall. But who really has time for that?

  5. This is both a lovely and a very useful post Joanna! I have also been very disappointed with Charming Lady, and surprised by cheap mixed packets. But after so many tulip bulbs simply disappeared this year after returning reliably for some years I suspect the mice! So I shall start to fill gaps with other bulbs and my choice this year is pared down to some favourites: Ballerina, Eye Catcher (my all-time favourite!), Princess Irene…. Golden Apeldoorn is also in my order, along with a parrot or two and an apricot one which I think is called Apricot Emperor. Some will go in pots where they can be protected. I have ordered already as I find the best ones sell out quickly! Thanks for sharing your experiences and photos!

  6. Great post. I have compiled a list of tulips recommended by bloggers and will refer to that when buying this year. I usually go for the orange / copper and dark purple varieties, but I think I shall try something different this year like yellow, apricot and white. There is a Purissima with variegated leaves too, which looks charming and may be worth a try.
    http://www.rosecottageplants.co.uk/tulipa-purissima-design/p725
    But I am restricting myself to just a few pots as my soil is very wet and hardly any re-appeared this year (except, surprisingly some in a pot I’d forgotten to remove).

  7. Brilliant post Jo, you’ve summed up the love of tulips and the often fraught journey to grow them (not appearing the next year, being expensive squirrel food, etc etc. I love tulips and am hoping to create a bit of a Tulip fest next year in the nursery. There is so much to love about them, and the range of colours these days is fabulous and oh so tempting

  8. This was a thoroughly interesting and useful post, Joanna, with pros and cons for anyone considering growing tulips, whatever their experience. We all have such different planting conditions so reading the comments too should add to our communal store of knowledge as well. I find the species tulips very reliable but in borders others are very variable but I can see how useful your record keeping must be. For pots I have decided not to keep tulips for another year because of unreliabilty and the time and space needed to save them. Like Christina I would thoroughly recommend Peter Nyssen and if you have not checked them out you will be surprised at their prices. I also buy packs from Aldi who always have some nice blends of named varieties – and last year I had those bargain buys from our local garden centre just before Christmas! Thanks for a lovely post

  9. I really enjoyed this post: both useful and so beautifully and evocatively written and photographed! I have the same problem every single year, i.e. I wait until November/December to plant my tulips as recommended – only to find that it then rains or snows every single day, and the ground is either underwater or frozen. After the experience of last winter I think I shall stick to pots (though even they didn’t do well this spring). I buy most of mine at wholesale prices from J. Parker, with the more unusual varieties from Sarah Raven (if I think I can afford them!). I have found Purissima and Spring Green to be quite reliable repeaters, and even Flaming Spring Green (streaked with red and very dramatic, if rather expensive) has surprised me by coming up for the third time (just one single flower, though!). Species tulips fare better, and my favourite Tulipa whittallii (or orphanidea) has come up year after year even in my heavy clay, and even increased!

  10. This lovely and useful post has inspired me to comment on your delightful blog for the first time! I am from Scotland but live and garden in New England. Because of climate and greedy maple roots my soil is very dry in summer so I find tulips come back more reliably than narcissus which seems a little odd to me but I’m learning to deal with it! The Darwin hybrids Daydream and Appeldorn have returned for several years, also Ballerina which is a favourite. I am going to try more species tulips; I planted Tulip Orphanidea last autumn and it is absolutely beautiful and long lasting.
    I also grow 4 or 5 types in pots every year which I treat as annuals. I bury the pots in a large pile of leaves until March to protect them from some of the freeze/thaw cycle. This year Gudoshnik and Black Hero were my favourites. I love your phrase about ‘dying with great melodrama’; Gudoshnik certainly ticked that box!
    I try to order spring bulbs by July, some US sellers give discounts for early orders. One tip that I found helpful is to plant in ground tulips very deep; it protects them from summer rain and temperature swings and discourages them from producing bulblets which weakens the flowering.
    Thank you for this post, it has helped me clarify what I look for in a tulip and given me ideas for next year!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s