Species tulips: how to grow species tulips, plus 13 varieties to grow
Species tulips are the smaller, more delicate predecessors of modern tulips. Plant expert Jonny Bruce explains how to grow them, and recommends 13 of the best. Images by Richard Bloom
While little can rival the brilliance of modern tulips for size and variety of colour, species (or wild) tulips and their cultivars offer a more delicate display, and are perfect for a rock garden or gravel garden, a meadow and containers. There is a growing appreciation for these tiny jewel-like blooms.
What are species tulips?
Species tulips are the smaller ancestors of our modern tulips.
There are around 76 species tulips, hailing from southwestern Europe, North Africa and central Asia, where they grow on the dry slopes of mountains and valleys.
Many wild tulips resent the soggy climate of much of northern Europe but there are a rewarding number that grow well in the UK climate.
Unlike their gaudier cousins, which generally do not flower well after their first year, many species tulips are reliably perennial, coming back year after year in a similar way to daffodils. They will also bulk up and naturalise, creating ever more impressive displays year on year.
What The smaller ancestors of our modern tulips.
Origins Around 76 species ocurring in southwestern Europe, North Africa and central Asia. Many species have been naturalised in Europe and western Asia for centuries.
Season These spring bulbs tend to bloom earlier in gardens than in the wild, but will emerge variously from March through May. All species tulips are dormant in summer.
Size Flowers are produced on stems up to 50cm with leaves of varying size but most species range between 10-30cm.
Conditions Almost without exception these tulips enjoy full sun, plenty of air and as good drainage as they can get. Some are more adaptable to cool, moist summers than others.
Hardiness Given sufficient drainage most species are extremely cold tolerant. A greater risk are mild, wet winters, which may rot the bulbs or result in poor flowering due to an insufficient chill period.
Taxonomy All the plant names here are based on new botanical research, at Kew and elsewhere, that has sorted out many of the concerns that this genus has been prone to over the years.
How to grow species tulips
Where to grow species tulips
The most important consideration for species tulips is good drainage, especially during dormant periods. This means that they are well suited gravel and rock gardens. If your soil isn't well drained, you can still grow species tulips – either in terracotta pots, or by adding sand or grit when you plant. On very heavy soils, a raised bed is an effective method of ensuring good drainage.
Most species tulips enjoy slightly alkaline conditions, which can be achieved by adding chalk or limestone chippings to the soil.
How to plant species tulips
In the ground, make sure you plant at least three times the depth of the bulb, deeper if possible. This is best done in autumn but tulips are more tolerant to late planting than other bulbs and can be as late as December. Improve drainage by adding sharp sand and/or grit to the soil, and adding a little extra grit beneath the bulb at planting.
Caring for species tulips
The bulbs can be fed with an organic fertiliser during the growing season, to increase their vigour and resistance to pest and disease.
Maintaining good airflow around the plants is the best way to prevent the build up of tulip fire fungus and infestations of aphids. Many species perform better after a long, hot summer the previous year.
Allow the leaves to yellow before cutting back the foliage.
Growing species tulips in pots
Grow species tulips in terracotta pots, as they are breathable. Add crocks to the base and fill with a loam-based compost mixed with a few handfuls of coarse grit. When planting the bulbs in autumn, place them about half way down the pot to ensure a good root run.
To guarantee a brilliant display, these pots can then be placed in a cold greenhouse or plunged into an outdoor sand bed with a protective covering to prevent rain damage. The sand helps the pots from drying out completely and allows indirect watering. In his excellent book, Tulips: Species and Hybrids for the Gardener, Richard Wilford states ‘plunging your pots is the greatest improvement you can make to the way you grow tulips’.
It’s difficult to over-water a well-drained pot while a tulip is in full growth but take care as plants first emerge – too much water will induce rot, too little may stunt their growth. Once the leaves have yellowed you can empty the pots, clean the bulbs and store them in a cool, dark place, which frees up the pots for summer annuals and gives you an opportunity to refresh the compost for planting the bulbs again in autumn.
13 species tulips to grow
A cultivar of T. clusiana, the species commonly known as the lady tulip, and one of the earliest species to reach Europe from Turkey. This vigorous cultivar has typical white tepals, the outer layer coloured with cerise veining on the reverse. The blooms fall open on a sunny day to reveal a dark inner blotch ringed with dark anthers. Will naturalise. Height 25cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 3a-7b.
Widely sold as Tulipa acuminata. Although Tulipa ‘Cornuta’ does not exist in nature, and is almost certainly an old hybrid of Turkish origin, its curious form warrants inclusion in a collection of wild species tulips. Flowering in late April to early May, it produces needle-pointed tepals, flamed red and yellow on tall stems, and works well in a pot, a border or even grown among wildflowers in a spring meadow. Height 50cm.
Tulipa x gesneriana
This hybrid, which now includes plants formerly known as Tulipa fulgens, is one that is thought to have been introduced from the collections of the sultan of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. A beautiful true scarlet bloom held on long stems, it has been used extensively in the breeding of modern garden tulips. Height 40cm.
Tulipa orphanidea Whittallii Group
An unusual brick orange with a smoky basal blotch and slight veining. It is distinctly more vigorous than Tulipa orphanidea, indicating a possible hybrid. It was discovered in western Turkey by Edmund Whittall. Height 30cm. AGM. RHS H6.
Tulipa orphanidea ‘Flava’
A yellow form of the diverse Tulipa orphanidea species that occurs in the wild. The yellow flowers are greenish in bud, with a brown blotch on the reverse of the outer tepals. An easy garden tulip, it flowers in mid spring often produces more than one flower. Height 20cm. RHS H6.
Tulipa orphanidea Hageri Group
Produces up to five red, globe flowers from each bulb. These sit above gently undulating leaves at the end of April. Also sold as Tulipa hageri, the group was named for botanist Friedrich Hager who collected the tulip in Greece in 1862. Height 20cm.
The latest of all tulips it can flower into June. Rare in the wild, it has proved itself an easy garden plant, growing easily from seed and one of the few tulips to self-sow. Can also tolerate some shade and seems to enjoy soils that don’t dry out too much. Height 40cm. AGM. RHS H6.
Provided it gets enough heat, light and drainage this is one of the most rewarding species. Produces colonies of soft pink blooms, blotched with egg-yolk yellow in April. Leaves appear in November but remain undamaged by frosts. Height 20cm.
Tulipa linifolia ‘Red Hunter’
A strong, scarlet cultivar that opens wide in the sun to reveal a dark blotch. If planted in a free-draining spot it will increase freely. One of the best smaller tulip species for the garden, there is a similar yellow form known as Tulipa linifolia Batalinii Group. Height 15-20cm. AGM. RHS H5.
Tulipa humilis ‘Lilliput’
Unusually for a tulip, the species resents an extreme baking heat in summer so does well in more temperate European climates. This cultivar has a pronounced blue/black blotch and usually produces more multiple flowers per bulb. Blooms March. Height 10-15cm. RHS H5.
More like this
Tulipa humilis ‘Eastern Star’
A magenta cultivar with a strong yellow eye of a highly variable species that throws up many different colours. In the wild, in central Asia at heights above 3,000m, it blooms as late as July – but in UK gardens tends to flower in early April. Height 10cm. RHS H5.
Named by the Russian botanist Aleksei Vvedensky in 1935 after Fergana a region in east Uzbekistan. The star-shaped, yellow tepals are delicately dusted with fine hairs. The reverse of the tepals are washed with a light, orangey-brown. A very elegant species. Height 25cm.
With its brilliant red flower, this is the archetypal ‘little red tulip’. It tcomes from central Asia and was first described in 1827 by John Lindley. Sometimes sold under a later synonym Tulipa wilsoniana (1902), it is best grown in pots where summer moisture can be regulated. Height 10cm.
Where to see species tulips
An excellent place to see these unusual blooms is at the Hortus Bulborum in the Netherlands. Located just north of Amsterdam, in the small town of Limmen, this four-acre garden with its collection of historic bulbs laid out in orderly rows provides a welcome respite from the teeming crowds of nearby Keukenhof. Better known for its collection of cultivated tulips dating back to the earliest Dutch cultivars, the Hortus Bulborum also boasts an impressive collection of species tulips.
Zuidkerkenlaan 23A, 1906 AC Limmen, the Netherlands. Tel +31 (0)61 188 9489, hortus-bulborum.nl
Where to buy species tulips
Burnt House Farm, Mid Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset TA13 5HE.
Tel 01460 242177, avonbulbs.co.uk
Primrose Nurseries, Melchbourne, Bedfordshire MK44 1ZZ.
Tel 01234 709099, blomsbulbs.com
Jacques Amand International
The Nurseries, Clamp Hill, Stanmore, Middlesex HA7 3JS.
Tel 020 8420 7110, jacquesamandintl.com
124 Flixton Road, Urmston, Manchester M41 5BG.
Tel 0161 747 4000, peternyssen.com
Jonny Bruce is a gardener and writer with an arts background. Having trained in historic gardens he moved into nurseries, learning sustainable growing methods and deepening his plantsmanship which he now applies as a planting design consultant.
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