Most gardens have one, a sunny spot where it just seems tough to grow anything. Maybe the soil is a bit thin, perhaps overly sandy or laced with rocks and gravel. Well there may be an easy answer for that and it may surprise: plant tulips there this fall. Okay, not any tulips. The big showy Darwin hybrids and tall slender Single Late varieties are best enjoyed in loamy, well-composted beds and borders. But rough garden margins may be just the spot to tuck in a selection of wild or species tulips.
Many gardeners don't realize that tulips are not native to Holland. The majority of tulips originated in the forbidding mountains and barren steppes of Central Asia, the Mideast and China. These regions, with bone dry summers and deep freeze winters, hardened nature’s original tulips into ultimate floral survivors.
“Wild tulips are generally much smaller and shorter than Dutch hybrid tulips,” says Christian Curless, horticulturist for the U.S. flower bulb company Colorblends (Colorblends.com). “They actually respond well to neglect, thriving in sites where other flowers might fail. They’re particularly appealing in scrappy natural-looking areas where their open-faced spring flowers are a fun surprise.”
Curless confesses an affinity for wild tulips. He edited Dutch tulip expert Eric Breed’s work “Tulips in the Wild,” created by Colorblends as a booklet in 2013 and now as an interactive online resource, www.tulipsinthewild.com. Both formats feature exclusive rare photography of wild tulips shot in their remote native habitats.
Tips for Growing Wild Tulips in Home Gardens
Despite their diminutive delicate-looking flowers, wild tulips are as tough in a garden as they are in harsh native environments. Plant them in the right spot, and it’s easier to kill them with kindness than it is with neglect. The right spot, says Curless, is one with full sun, good soil drainage, no foraging animals and no sprinklers or soaker hoses over summer. So situated, wild tulips have the capacity to settle in, sometimes coming back to bloom in spring for several years. They are are suited to growing in USDA Zones 3-7 (pre-chill 7b-10).
With petals that open wide in the sun, wild tulips show brightly against the spring landscape. Choices include red, bright yellow, orangey-red, pink, orchid, white and bi-colors in two-tones and stripes. Bloom time varies from early to late spring.
For best effect, plant them in scattered clusters in rock gardens, along fences or walks, even in gravel patios, he suggests. Avoid planting them in pampered beds of thirsty plants or among taller perennials that will quickly over-shadow them in spring. Wild tulips will partner well with low-growing plants with similar needs, such as short varieties of stonecrop (Sedum), which also thrive in poor soil and hot, dry locations.
Fall is the time to plant wild tulips and other spring-blooming bulbs. The bulbs of species tulips are smaller than regular garden tulips; bury them just four inches deep. For best rooting, plant once average night temperatures drop to the 40°F - 45°F range and before the ground freezes hard. Don’t bother to fertilize or add compost, says Curless.
Like all spring-flowering bulbs, tulips go dormant several weeks after flowering. The leaves yellow, dry up and eventually disappear as the bulbs enter their summer hibernation. It’s important to allow them to die back naturally. Don’t cut, tie or mow the leaves, which are recharging the bulbs below with the energy required for flowering the following spring. The good news: Most wild tulips have narrow, unobtrusive foliage that is unlikely to attract much notice as it yellows and withers.
For the record: the wild tulips sold today by top-tier companies like Colorblends aren’t actually wild. They’re commercially cultivated species tulips that retain their native characteristics.
“Our wild tulips are grown by skilled tulip growers in Holland from selections made long ago by Dutch horticulturists,” says Curless. “They’re direct descendants of the tulips that originally captivated the court of Ottoman Emperor Suleyman the Magnificent in the 1500s and the Dutch over the next four hundred years.”