The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Tulip history and varieties

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Speculation. Promissory notes. Over-extended credit. Concerns of today. Concerns of yesterday. However 400 years ago in Holland it was all about tulip bulbs.

Tulips, native to Asia, quickly became a symbol of power and prestige in Holland in the 1600's. Fortunes were made and lost on tulip bulbs. Tulip bulb speculation was an economic game of hot potato based on the buying and selling of promissory notes.

Incredible sums were paid. At one point, a single 'Semper Augustus' bulb fetched a whopping 4,500 Dutch guilders ($2,250) plus a horse and carriage!

Luckily we don't have to spend that much to enjoy the beauty of tulips today. In addition we have a tremendous variety of flower shapes, sizes and colors now available.

To have 4 to 6 weeks of tulips in the landscape select several cultivated varieties (cultivars) with various flowering times. Here are a few to consider.

Very early types - late March to early April

  • Water lily tulips are 4-12 inches tall with pointed petals that open wide. 'Stresa' is golden yellow and red.
  • Tulipa greigii has lovely green leaves with maroon markings at 6-20 inches tall. The most popular is the brilliant red 'Red Riding Hood'.
  • Emperor tulips are12-15 inches tall. 'Red Emperor' is a fiery red.

Early tulips - mid April to early May

  • Single early are fragrant, but you will have to bend over to reach the 10 – 18 inch tall plants. 'Couleur Cardinal' is a dark cardinal red.
  • Double early tulips resemble a peony at 10-12 inches tall. 'All Gold' is a deep golden yellow.
  • Tulipa praestans is 8-12 inches tall with multiple flowers per stem. 'Fusilier' is orange scarlet.

Mid season - late April to mid May

  • Triumphs have sturdy stems at 18-24 inches tall in many colors including bicolors.
  • Darwin hybrids have large flowers on 24 inches tall plants. Flowers come in shades of mostly red.
  • Tulipa tarda has star-like yellow flowers with white edges at a mere 4-6 inches tall.

Late - mid to late May

  • Darwin tulips are very popular large flowers on 24-30 inches tall plants. They come in all colors and are sturdy, resisting damage from wind and rain.
  • Cottage tulips have egg-shaped mostly pastel colored flowers on 22-30 inches tall plants.
  • Double late tulips are peony flowered on 8-24 inches tall very sturdy stems. 'Angelique' is a lovely pink.
  • Rembrandt tulips have streaked petals on 2 feet tall plants.
  • Lily flowered have slender urn shaped buds with long curving petals that turn outward at the tips. The flowers are long lasting and come in variable colors.
  • Parrot tulips have large fringed, ruffled petals in vibrant colors.

With some tulips successive flower shows fail to rival the first season's bloom. Public gardens often treat tulips as annuals and replace them every year. Reportedly the longer lived types include single early, species types, Darwin, Lily flowered, Fosterana and Gregii cultivars. For long-lived tulips look for ones labeled "good for naturalizing".

Tulips and all the spring flowering bulbs such as crocus, daffodils and grape hyacinths should be planted in October. For best growth plant tulips 8 inches deep in masses in sunny areas with well-drained soil. Dry soil in summer will help tulip bulbs to live longer.

Tulips can be planted in ground covers such as English ivy or vinca. Plant tulips near perennials such as daylilies, hostas, asters, peonies, and fall anemones. To keep rabbits at bay, plant tulips surrounded by daffodils, grape hyacinths, or lily-of-the-valley. Since tulips rise and shine early in the season they can be planted in the back of a flower border.

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