Early Garden Tulips

By Michael King

The tulip flowering season runs from mid March until mid May.

Since most tulips are in flower for about three weeks this means that some flower earlier than others. In March the garden is bare and tulips are best used to bring a bold splash of colour to get us in the mood for the pleasures that the rest of the year might offer. Later in the spring the tulips are part of a far more complex world of flowering shrubs and rapidly emerging and flowering perennials.

Tulipa pulchella 'Violacea'
Tulipa pulchella 'Violacea'

Some of the earliest tulips are small wild species of exquisite beauty that might best be seen in pots or prominent corners of garden borders. For bolder effects in the garden we need something taller-growing. The group called Single Early and Double Early are ideal for mass planting and are also the most familiar as shop-bought cut flowers in spring. These highly bred tulips are great, but they tend to be short lived unless cosseted by being lifted and stored after flowering to be replanted the following spring.

Tulipa fosteriana ‘Red Alert’
Tulipa fosteriana ‘Red Alert’

Far more reliable tulips that will return in the garden from year to year without having to be lifted are to be found in the two groups of tulips closely related to the wild species Tulipa kaufmanniana and Tulipa fosteriana. These are my first choice for bold, early displays in the open garden

Waterlily Tulips

Tulipa kaufmanniana ’The First’
Tulipa kaufmanniana ’The First’

These are derived from Tulipa kaufmanniana. Their broad glaucous leaves nestle close to the ground and the short stems carry long-petalled flowers never more than 8 inches/20 centimetres above. The comparison with a waterlily arises from the way the flowers open out in full sunshine until almost flat, closing up again each evening and only partially opening in overcast weather. When fully open these dynamic flowers may exceed 10 inches/25 centimetres in diameter, creating bold spreads of colour that seem to float across the garden floor. Grouped together, waterlily tulips form uniform pools of colour and tend to look at their best when planted in wide masses.

Tulipa kaufmanniana ‘Ancilla’
Tulipa kaufmanniana ‘Ancilla’

Ancilla’ is typical and probably the best of a number of pale tinted cultivars. It has ivory cream petals with a bold carmine red flame pattern on the outside, and when fully open all attention is drawn to the bright yellow base with scarlet ring markings. Other similar cultivars are ‘The First’, ’Johann Strauss’ and ‘Franz Léhar’. ‘Corona’ is a striking lemon yellow and ‘Giuseppe Verdi’ is darker yellow with a bold red outer flame.

Tulipa kaufmanniana ‘Stresa’
Tulipa kaufmanniana ‘Stresa’

Stresa’ is the best of those cultivars called bicolors. Its lemon yellow flowers have a bold red flame on the outside. These are flowers that might be termed brash by some, but so early in the year when little else is flowering in the garden they appear fresh and dramatic.

Fosteriana Group Tulips

Tulip ‘Purissima’
Tulip ‘Purissima’

Fosteriana Tulips are generally taller-growing and as a group tend to come into flower a couple of weeks later than the Kaufmanniana Group cultivars. They might be used in the garden to take over from an initial display of the waterlily tulips or be used themselves to create the first splash of colour in the gardening year.

‘Purissima' is my first choice and in fact many gardeners think it is the best tulip ever bred. Its white flowers are held clear above its healthy grey green foliage by strong stems some 18 inches/45 centimetres high. It flowers for three weeks on into the mid-season and being warm white it mixes easily with all other flower colours. Alternatives to white flowers include Yellow Purissima and Red Emperor.

Tulip ‘Orange Emperor’
Tulip ‘Orange Emperor’

‘Orange Emperor’ has flowers that are strident orange on the outside, paler on the inside with a gentle green flame on the outside of each petal. The overall colour is sophisticated rather than brash even though the flowers can glow brightly when backlit by low-angled sunlight.

Tulip ‘Red Alert’
Tulip ‘Red Alert’

An exciting sport of Orange Emperor has appeared recently called Red Alert. Here is the same green-flamed flower in a glowing, neon orange - brilliant!

There are many more waterlily and Fosteriana Group tulips to discover as well as later-flowering tulips with fringed, lily-like, double and extravagantly splashed and streaked flowers. By understanding the sequence in which they flower you will be able to plan a long and infinitely variable display for your spring garden.

Now is the time to pay attention and note which bulbs you need to order for next year. To help the students of Learning with Experts you may download a copy of my eBook “Tulips - Design & Plant’ for free throughout 2020. Simply use the discount code TULIPS2020 during checkout on my web site at perennialmeadows.com.

It would also be a good time to be starting on of the Learning with Experts courses:

Spring Flowering Bulbs with Perennials with Jacqueline van der Kloet

Bulbs: for Pots and Borders with Andy McIndoe

Michael King

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