Horticulture Magazine

Tulip Plant Care & Growing Tips

purple tulips in focus

Tulip Overview

Official Plant NameTulipa
Common Name(s)Tulips
Plant TypePerennial Bulbs
Native AreaSouth-East Europe
Hardiness RatingH6
ToxicitySome toxicity
FoliageDeciduous
FlowersGoblet shaped flowers in a wide range of colours
When To SowOctober, November
Flowering MonthsMarch, April, May
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun

Exposure
Sheltered

Size

Height
0.5 – 1M

Spread
0 – 0.1M

Bloom Time
March – May

Soil

Preferred
Chalk, loam, sand

Moisture
Well drained

pH
Any

Which flower is supremely popular, comes in a diverse array of forms, and has a storied history? Answer: the Tulip. This bulbous perennial plant was at the centre of that famous Dutch ‘mania.’ Tulips are mainstays in bouquets for the adored one or a family member, and though they are renowned for their rich hues, their forms are just as diverse and eye-catching.

Though Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships, the Tulip was the flower that broke a thousand fortunes (and made some as well). Regardless of the precise details, the general facts are that in the 1630s a speculative craze in Tulips, the ‘Tulip Mania,’ meant that the few who unloaded their overpriced Tulips and Tulip bulbs before the crash made a killing while those who got left holding the bag were ruined. The Tulip Mania was the forerunner to the MBS crisis and dot-com bubble. Just as Helen’s must have been one heck of a face to trigger a war, the Tulip must be one heck of a flower to spur a ‘Mania.’ 

One of the reasons for this flower’s magnetic appeal is surely the upright stance and demure appearance of the ‘classic’ Tulip with its just-barely-open petals; another reason would be the vibrant and radiant hues in the warm band of the colour spectrum. And surely yet another reason is the way these plants usher in spring with row after row of gorgeous goblet-shaped blooms in rich colours. As is commonly known, Tulips come in all hues and tones from white to near-black, except blue. Two or three varieties produce blooms in a medium bluish-violet, though.

a mass of purple prince flowers in bloom
A Stunning Mass Planting of ‘Purple Prince’ in Bloom 

Tulips are not plants as commonly understood; they are bulbs that put out a few leaves and a flowering stem. The leaves are flat and strap-like similar to those of lilies, and this is hardly surprising because Tulips belong to the Lily Family. Botanically, Genus Tulipa is a member of Family Liliaceae. It includes 120 to 130 (natural) species.

Even the flowers are rather unusual. Take the ‘classic’ goblet-shaped Tulip, the Division 1 ‘Single Early’ that most of us visualise when talk turns to Tulips. They appear to have six petals; three outer petals inclosing three inner ones. In fact, the outer ‘petals’ are actually technically sepals but the sepals and petals are virtually indistinguishable. Such sepals and petals are collectively called tepals.

In another departure from floral plant life in general, a large number of tulip varieties, as bulbs, put up one stem with one flower. One stem and one flower it may be but the number of Tulip varieties is nearly 4,000 and counting as floriculturists are driven to develop new varieties, bred for cut-flower life, disease resistance, newer colours, and more striking forms. Evidently the ’Tulip Mania’ was not a one-off incident, but if it was then a low-key ’tulip mania’ still seems to be bubbling along . . .

close up of white tulip ancilla flowers
Tulip ‘Ancilla’ is Almost Startling in its Marvellous Beauty

Background and Origins

The similarity of the Tulip to Helen of Troy doesn’t begin and end with the tumult and turmoil each caused. Believe it or not, both have the same geographic origins! Helen was from Sparta in Greece and fled to Ilium in Anatolia – while Tulips’ can be said to be ‘from’ Anatolia from whence they went to Greece, and further west. The genus’s native range stretches from Portugal eastwards through North Africa up to Mongolia and northward to West Siberia, with Iran and Central Asia particular loci of species origin and diversity.

Indeed, Tulips appear in Persian works of art and poetry dating to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, and it is believed that it is during this same time period that they were first cultivated, again in Persia and in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey).

white and yellow gentle tulipa flowers
Sweet and Gentle Tulipa ’Sweetheart’ from the Fosteriana Division

In the Sixteenth Century, Vienna’s ambassador in Constantinople came across Tulips while visiting Adrianople and sent a shipment of bulbs to his home state in 1562. It did not take any time for the flower to catch florists’ and the general public’s fancy, and Tulip horticulture got underway almost immediately. Near the end of the Sixteenth Century, in around 1593, the Tulip arrived in the Netherlands courtesy of Carolus Clusius, a botanist. Within several years Tulip bulbs became sought-after commodities in the country and the craze culminated in the Tulip Mania three decades later.

Thus, though Tulips are so strongly identified with the Netherlands that one might almost say, “As Dutch as a Tulip,” they are not native to the Netherlands – they are relatively recent imports but have truly been adopted by the Dutch. Today, the Netherlands is the world’s Tulip capital, with France a distant second. While we associate the Tulip with the Netherlands, this flower holds a prominent position in Iranian symbology and culture.

red and yellow hues of abu hassan
The Gorgeous Rich Tones of Tulip ‘Abu Hassan’

Varieties

The consequence of the extensive cultivation that Tulips have gone through is that its thousands of varieties are grouped into 15 ‘divisions’ or ‘groups’ – categories, one might say. This categorisation is predicated on the shape and form of the flower, blooming season, and height of the plant.

The goblet-shaped bloom that most of us associate with Tulips is actually Division 1, ‘Single Early.’ This is the much-adored ‘Tulip-Tulip’ that few, if any, would claim to dislike. The same cannot be said for all of the other Division Tulips as some of them are certainly acquired tastes. The graceful and elegant aloofness projected by a goblet-shaped Single form Tulip is probably unmatched in Flowerdom.

deep red Tulipa ‘Couleur Cardinal’
Tulipa ‘Couleur Cardinal’ is Just Made to Order for Valentine’s Day!

Division 2, ‘Double Early,’ look like ‘regular flowers’ with somewhat different shapes and styles though these are bowl-shaped or cup-shaped in proper double form.

 Division 3, ’Triumph,’ are not too dissimilar from Single Early; they are a little more open, and cup shaped as opposed to goblet shaped, and some varieties bear bi-coloured flowers. 

Division 4, ‘Darwin Hybrid,’ is a collection of hybrids of Single Earlys and species Tulips; as such, their shape and form includes varieties very similar and also dissimilar to the Single Earlys. They are reliable perennials.

Division 5, ‘Single Late,’ are very similar to the Division 1 Singles except that the flowers are just a touch more open and they bloom at the end of spring.

white ‘Catherina’ flowers up close
Even in an Underexposed Image the Sedate Beauty of ‘Catherina’ Comes Through

Division 6, ‘Lily-Flowered’ which tend to look like Tulips that are trying to be Lilies but with pointed tepal tips.

Division 7, ‘Fringed,’ literally have fringes, upright and spiky or wayward and dangling, on the edges of the petals.

Division 8, ‘Virdiflora,’ have flowers whose petals have flares, splashes, or blotches of green in varying shades.

Division 9, ‘Rembrandt,’ have bi-coloured flowers that resemble those from the Tulip Mania days that were called ‘broken’ in Tulipish. These display what seem for all the world to be paintbrush strokes.

singular Tulip ‘Insulinde,’ Rembrandt Division in focus
Tulip ‘Insulinde,’ Rembrandt Division – Brushstrokes of Purple Paint on a White Canvas

Division 10, ‘Parrot,’ are distinguished by ruffled and curved petals with a feathery texture or appearance. 

Division 11, ‘Double Late,’ are surely misnamed because as Division 6 is called ‘Lily-Flowered,’ these should be called ‘Peony-Flowered’ for parallel reasons; as well, many varieties bear scented blooms.

Division 12, ‘Kaufmanniana,’ have elongated forms similar to ‘Single Early’ but with half-open pointed tepals that open nearly full and flat in sunlight.

Division 13, ‘Fosteriana,’ aka ‘Emperor,’ have the biggest blooms which, like the Double Earlys, are like ‘regular’ flowers and bear a passing resemblance to hollyhocks.

Division 14, ‘Greigii,’ are positioned as having ‘decorative foliage’ but in truth the real attraction is that it includes floral forms and features of, at least, Triumph, Rembrandt, and Kaufmanniana, in addition to which one stem bears up to four flowers.

four red riding hood tulips
No Tulip Could be More Aptly Named Than ‘Red Riding Hood’

Division 15, ‘Species’ or ‘Botanical,’ comprises of the wild-growing progenitors of the hybrids and cultivars; in general, these have some of the smallest flowers borne on some of the shortest stems.

Division 16, ‘Multiflowering,’ includes plants in which a single branching stem bears four or five flowers with a few even bearing seven blooms.

The plants in these divisions are further differentiated by their heights and flowering season, and, to a lesser extent, the floral colours. Indeed, Divisions 1, 2, 5, and 11 are identified by flowering season – early and late. In contrast to each, Division 4, ‘Darwin Hybrid’ are mid-season bloomers, that is end-April, beginning-May.

Our favourites and recommendations include: Couleur Cardinal (Division 1, Single Early), Purple Prince (Division 1, Single Early), Monsella (Division 2, Double Early), Attila (Division 3, Triumph), Abu Hassan (Division 3, Triumph), Catherina (Division 5, Single Late), Queen of the Night (Division 5, Single Late), Violet Beauty (Division 5, Single Late), White Triumphator (Division 6, Lily-Flowered), Ballade Dream (Division 6, Lily-Flowered), Groenland (Division 8, Virdiflora), Insulinde (Division 9, Rembrandt), Ancilla (Division 12, Kaufmanniana), Sweetheart (Division 13, Fosteriana), Red Riding Hood (Division 14, Greigii), and Bakeri Lilac Wonder (Division 15, Species/Botanical).

Magenta-Coloured Triumph Division ‘Atilla’ Tulips ready to bloom
Magenta-Coloured Triumph Division ‘Atilla’ Tulips Getting Ready to Bloom

Habitat and Growing Conditions

Species Tulips are found in the steppes and hillsides of Iran, Turkey, and Central and East Asia. They also grow wild in fields and meadows.

Most species are indigenous to temperate regions but some species are native to cold climatic zones. In the main, species Tulip habitats are dry and cool. They do not thrive in damp conditions or waterlogged soils. Cultivars are more tolerant of damp soil.

Most Tulips are hardy to USDA Zones 3 to 8.

Tulip ‘White Triumphator’ with yellow stamens and green foliage in the background
Tulip ‘White Triumphator’ – A Tulip Wanting to be a Lily!

Where to Plant Tulips

Tulips differ greatly in the shape and form of the bloom, its size, the height of the stem, and the colour and also in the colours – plural. As a result, where they can be planted and how they are best shown varies quite widely.

Most Tulips make excellent bedding plants, both in a single variety to multiply the effect of some intense variety, or in suitably mixed varieties. For example, 30 to 40 Violet Beauty or Abu Hassan bulbs would produce a sensational effect. In contrast, a Monsella or Groenland (one of the perfect Viridifloras) may be displayed in a decorative pot as a single specimen.

Height (plus personal taste) are good discriminators by which to choose Tulip varieties for borders and rock gardens; medium-height varieties, preferably Singles or Doubles for the former, and short varieties in unusual forms or Division 15 species for the latter.

You could use your imagination in ‘painting’ your garden with Tulips. How about a two-colour design created with Catherina Single and Queen of the Night? Both are Single Lates. You could name your design ‘Queen Catherine the Great.’ 

You can – of course – also mix and match Tulips with other spring flowers in harmonious or complementary colours and to set off floral forms.

a small bouquet of violet beauties
A Small, Backlit Bouquet of ‘Violet Beauties’

Feeding, Care and Growing Tips

Choose bulbs that are firm and intact without tears, and are the largest ones. Discard those that have a compromised wrapper or outer coating, that are soft anywhere, that are dry and shrivelled, or that are small. See if you can get your hands on ‘dealer’ or ‘pro’ top-size bulbs.

Buy bulbs in late summer and store them in a brown paper bag or a wrapping of cotton mesh in the crisper in the fridge, though not with vegetables or fruits (particularly bulb-killing apples and pears). They can also be stored in a well-ventilated cool place such as may be available in a basement. If so, care should be taken to protect the bulbs from mice and other pests.

Bulbs are best planted in late autumn, specifically when the soil temperature is 5° to 10° Centigrade. 

The ideal soil for Tulips in general is a loose loam that includes sand, gravel, and compost. Soil should drain very well. Feel free to mix in a little 5-10-10 fertilizer into the soil. Do not plant Tulip bulbs in the same soil in which you have grown Tulips the previous season.

Bulbs should be planted 10 to 18 centimetres deep and 10 to 12 centimetres apart. A good rule of thumb is to plant a bulb at twice to thrice the depth of its length (or height). Plant bulbs so that they are ‘pointing’ upwards. Give them a good watering after planting.

Now, over the winter, the bulbs will develop stores of energy to draw upon come spring, when the bulbs start to flower. During this period roots and leaves begin to develop inside the bulbs.

fully opened Bi-Coloured Monsella Tulips
Bi-Coloured Monsella Tulips Opened up in the Sun

You will usually read that Tulip bulbs should be treated as ‘annuals’ and that they must be dug up and discarded after a year, and new bulbs planted. We feel that the fragility of Tulip bulbs is rather exaggerated. That stated, the unfortunate truth is that Planned Obsolescence is penetrating, not just the Tulip Trade, but, the Floricultural Industry as a whole. Only rank-and-file gardeners, the ultimate consumers, can bring about a change by demanding and buying reliable perennial bulbs (and non-sterile seed varieties for other plants).

If you purchased a healthy, good-quality bulb, planted it correctly in good soil, and even fed it, it will continue producing flowers for years. This is especially true for certain Divisions, for example 1, 4, 5, 14 and 15. Admittedly, the same may not prove true for other Divisions, for example 7 and 10.

Though you may – or ought to – deadhead flowers, do not cut off a Tulip’s (or, in general, any bulb’s) leaves until they are totally withered and browned.

In regions that fall in USDA Zone 5 and above Tulip bulbs can be left in the ground through winter. Almost the entirety of the United Kingdom falls in USDA Zone 7 and no region falls in Zone 5 or lower. If you leave your bulbs in the ground over winter, just be sure that the soil is well-draining, spread leaf mulch thinly on the soil before winter sets in, and if there is a prolonged dry spell water the bulbs weekly. If you anticipate very cold weather or frost, spread horticultural fleece over the soil. In mid-March, feed the bulbs with a slow-release 5-10-5 and start to water again. 

If you leave your bulbs in the ground through the winter, you will reap a bonus. After three years or so the bulbs will have grown offsets, which you can divide and replant as new bulbs.

Do not let Tulip bulbs stay and grow in the same spot in the same soil for three years in succession; in fact this error is a contributing factor towards the misperception that bulbs need replacing. After two years, either re-work the soil or shift the bulb so that it is about 20 centimetres away, both from its own previous position and from other bulbs’ positions. 

Tulip ‘Ballade Dream’ with hues of yellow and orange
The Bi-Coloured Lily-Like Bloom of Tulip ‘Ballade Dream’

Tulips are Poisonous

Tulips are not child-friendly or pet-friendly. Considering that the toxic compounds are mainly found in the bulb which a child is very unlikely to get at but which a dog may dig up and have a chew on, it is dogs that are most likely to be poisoned by a Tulip bulb.

However, Tulip stems and leaves are also poisonous, though to a lesser extent, so children and cats can also suffer an episode of Tulip poisoning. The poisonous compound is an alkaloid. Symptoms of Tulip poisoning include abdominal pains, lethargy, nausea, vomiting, and seizures. 

Any child or pet suspected of ingesting any part of a Tulip should promptly be taken to a medical professional.

Oddly enough, some Tulip bulbs can actually be cooked and eaten! Such experimentation is not recommended in the least. However, many Divisions’ tepals are very much edible and make a delightful garnish. Division 1, ‘Single Early’ varieties’ tepals are a good choice for tossing in salads.

pink Tulipa ‘Groenland’
Tulipa ‘Groenland’ is Sheer Perfection; Viridiflora Division or Any Division

Common Diseases and Problems

Tulips are, relatively speaking, very resistant to pests and are disease-free. Unfortunately, the one pest that they are susceptible to is one of the nastiest and most damaging of all, stem-and-bulb eelworm. If you suspect an eelworm infestation you may even have to dig up a few bulbs and cut them open for inspection as to whether or not the problem is in fact eelworm. As a stem-and-bulb eelworm infestation persists in the soil and is difficult to eradicate, this pest needs to be discovered and treated early by qualified professionals.

Other than that, Tulips may be attacked by aphids and slugs.

Tulip bulbs are prone to bulb rot but this is a disease that can be forestalled by planting them in the right type of soil that drains well.

Queen of Night and Alabaster Tulips
Tulipdom’s Showstoppers: ‘Queen of the Night’

Where to Buy Tulips

You can find Tulip bulbs, albeit in a somewhat limited range, in virtually all nurseries and garden centres. These also have a prominent display of potted plants for sale starting from just before spring. 

Tulipa ‘Bakeri Lilac Wonder’
As ‘Wondrously’ Lovely as a Wildflower Can Get: Tulipa ‘Bakeri Lilac Wonder’

Some nurseries and garden centres actually specialise in spring-flowering bulbs. Not only will their product inventory be comprehensive, meaning that you will be able to get hard-to-find varieties, the quality of the bulbs will also be superior.

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