I will be the first to admit that I wasn’t always a fan of tulips. There was a time that I didn’t fully appreciate what they had to offer. Those single, brightly colored blooms that I was familiar with as a kid, the ones that lined driveways in a uniform line like marchers in a parade, didn’t always appeal to me. So yes, there was a time when I felt tulip’s short bloom time and electric colors weren’t for me. I know, for shame. But recently, I have discovered that there is so much more to the world of tulips than just those select few varieties that didn’t strike my fancy. And now I’m finding that I am falling in love with these blooms that are harbingers of spring.
I was surprised to learn that there are 75 different species of tulips, a far cry from the single species that I knew as a kid. The species are then divided into 16 groups based on plant size, bloom time, and flower form. These groups include singles and doubles (both early and late), Triumph, Lily-Flowered, Fringed, and Parrot, to name a few. There are over 3,000 registered varieties of tulips, and after growing some, my opinion has completely changed.
Tulips were initially discovered in Southern Europe and Central Asia and cultivated as early as 1055 in Constantinople. Their name is thought to have derived from a Persian word for turban, perhaps due to their resembling flower shape. Tulips became exceedingly popular in the 15th century, becoming the symbol of the Ottomans, and were later introduced to Europe in the 16th century. They became highly prized flowers so popular that there was a period from 1634 to 1637 called tulip mania. During this time, sought-after tulip bulbs would fetch extraordinary prices. For example, a single bulb was listed in a 1637 Dutch catalog with a price tag ten times what a skilled craftsman made in a year! I, for one, am thankful that their prices have come down since then.
I became interested in growing tulips when I learned that they are not only ornamental garden plants but also make excellent cut flowers. Over the past few years, I have increasingly added cut flowers to my gardens as I’ve become interested in making flower arrangements and bouquets. This past fall, I decided to add tulips to the cutting garden and planted 300 bulbs in one of my beds. Tulip bulbs are planted in the fall as they require a chilling period to bloom. In colder climates, planting in the fall allows Mother Nature to chill the bulbs over winter. Gardeners who live in warmer locations should purchase pre-chilled bulbs that many bulb sellers offer. As is customary in cut flower production, I planted my bulbs closely together in large masses to fit the most flowers in a smaller space. To my delight, the tulips made an appearance in early spring and are currently putting on a dazzling show.
I am completely enamored with the parrot and double peony-type tulips. The parrots are almost otherworldly in their exotic looks, and the doubles with their extra petals have stolen my heart. How could you not fall in love with the rainbow of colors that tulips provide? Some varieties even have stripes, tricolors, or beautiful blushes of a secondary tone. Unfortunately, the only color tulips don’t come in is a true blue, although several varieties do have a violet blush that is close. So you can grow a rainbow right in your garden.
It has been an excellent season for bulbs this year, with the prolonged cooler temperatures allowing for more growing time. The tulips are at least two weeks behind when they bloomed last year in our area. Nevertheless, the rainy spring and cooler temperatures have resulted in a fantastic tulip season. The stems are long and straight, and the blooms are gorgeous. How lucky for me as a first-time tulip grower!
I have been harvesting my tulips almost daily, making bouquets to bring indoors for my enjoyment and to give to others. Tulips should be cut when the buds are still closed but showing color to get the longest vase life. They will continue to open once placed in water. When I harvest, I use the method that flower farmers use and remove the entire plant, bulb, and all. This method may seem like a waste as you have to plant new bulbs each year, but it gives you the longest stem length. Also, most tulip bulbs produce their best flowers in the first year. If left in the ground, the flowers tend to be smaller in subsequent years and may eventually not bloom at all. To get the highest quality flower with the longest stem length, flower farmers harvest the entire tulip, including the bulb. Keeping the bulbs on the plants during storage also provides an energy source while the tulips are resting in coolers waiting to be sold, keeping them fresher. When the flowers are ready to be sold in a bouquet, the bulb is removed and composted. These bulbs most likely would not produce a flower if replanted, at least not in the first year, as they would not have leaves to make the energy to survive the winter. It can seem wasteful to compost the bulbs, but by planting new ones each season, you will guarantee high-quality flowers in the spring.
The specialty tulip varieties are unlike any other tulips I’ve seen. They have a significant vase life when harvested fresh from the garden, lasting much longer than their grocery store counterparts. I’ve had bouquets last for ten days or more while still looking freshly picked. When arranging with tulips, you should keep a few things in mind. Interestingly, tulips will continue to grow once cut, and it is not uncommon for them to grow an inch or more once in a vase. If putting them in an arrangement, you can account for this by placing them deeper in the arrangement than you usually would. Another exciting feature of tulips is that they visually respond to light intensity. Therefore, they are considered both heliotropic and photonastic. Heliotropic because they twist and bend to orient themselves towards light and photonastic because the flowers open and close in response to light conditions.
This growing season has shown me that there is so much to love about tulips. I now proudly say that I am a tulip lover! I have already placed my bulb order for the fall, and I am more than doubling the number of bulbs I will plant. How can I resist trying more of the 3,000 varieties of tulips out there? Oh, it is going to be a beautiful spring in 2023!