The tulip season isn’t over yet!

By Tamsin Westhorpe

Nobody enjoys watching the petals fall from their tulips.

As I write this blog post I can see the bright yellow Tulipa ‘West Point’ hanging on to its last petals for grim death. Now we must wait a whole year before we can celebrate these incredible blooms again. But, do we really have to wait so long? At Stockton Bury Gardens we have a secret weapon that allows us to cling to the tulip season for a little longer. Garden visitors flock to admire the later flowering species tulip, Tulipa sprengeri. In fact, it is the last of the wild tulips to flower and arguably the most impressive. These small red tulips fascinate gardeners. The reason for this fascination is that they thrive in so few places. This isn’t because they are fussy but it’s more likely to be due to the fact that they take years to establish.

The seed heads of Tulipa sprengeri with Carex buchananii.
The seed heads of Tulipa sprengeri with Carex buchananii.

The bulbs are expensive and in short supply, so we are lucky to have a gathering to be proud of here. However, this isn’t a display that money can buy. It’s the result of patience. My uncles planted a few bulbs in their Herefordshire garden thirty years ago and since then have allowed them to self-seed. Their first bulbs were gifted to them by their friend, Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter. Being given a few bulbs or a little envelope of seed by a friend is often the way that gardeners fall upon this plant as there aren’t suppliers who can send you a bulk order. Falling upon a few sprengeri bulbs is like falling upon a rare snowdrop – they are like gold dust and a gift to be very grateful for.

Self-seeded Tulipa sprengeri.
Self-seeded Tulipa sprengeri.

If you are lucky enough to strike gold and find a supplier of the bulbs or a friend who is willing to lift some for you in autumn (this isn’t an easy task), plant them in a position of semi shade in a well-drained soil. They will grow in full sun, but the flowers will go over quicker so I would suggest dappled shade. They are tough as old boots and can cope with anything the winter weather can throw at them but as with most bulbs a heavy, water-logged soil won’t lead to success. We’ve had no complaints from it here about our well-worked Herefordshire clay!

Ribbons of red flowers run through the borders in mid-May.
Ribbons of red flowers run through the borders in mid-May.

The striking red flowers appear in mid-May at a height of about 40cm. By August the seed heads, now held on taller stems, are equally as impressive. They look spectacular leaping out amongst the rusty foliage of Carexbuchananii. By September, the seed will have fallen to the ground. The following April you need to look carefully for grassy seedling that still have the seed case attached to the top – this is the giveaway that they are sprengeri babies. Seed can be purchased from Chiltern Seeds, but patience will be required here. You’ll need to wait anything from 4-7 years for flowers when growing from seed, but I’d still highly recommend you give it ago. Afterall, we all know how quickly the years race by.

Tulipa sprengeri has taken a liking to a position of dappled shade in the plant sales area at Stockton Bury Gardens.
Tulipa sprengeri has taken a liking to a position of dappled shade in the plant sales area at Stockton Bury Gardens.

The bulbs are small and can cost a few pounds each as they don’t increase by offset but by seed only – this explains their justifiably high price tag. If buying a few, raise your chances of success by planting them in different parts of the garden and mark the spot. Plant them much deeper than you would expect at about 15cm deep. As they are planted so deep, they are hard to lift but the plus side is that they are harder for the mice to nibble on!

Over the next few weeks, I will be enjoying the ribbons of red flowers that have weaved their way through the borders here over the years. These tulips will reward you for your patience I promise.

Specs of red decorate the May borders at Stockton Bury Gardens – the result of years of patience.
Specs of red decorate the May borders at Stockton Bury Gardens – the result of years of patience.

Tamsin Westhorpe

With over 25 years’ experience in the horticultural industry, Tamsin has plenty of practical, hands on advice to share. Her career has seen her edit The English Garden magazine for six years, write scripts for TV gardening, lecture at Kingston Maurward College in Dorset and care for parks and gardens. She is now a freelance writer and curator and gardener of Stockton Bury Gardens, Herefordshire (listed by The Times in the top 20 gardens to visit July 2017). Tamsin is also an RHS Chelsea Flower Show Judge, co-Chair of The Garden Media Guild and a prolific speaker at many high profile events. She has recently written her first book ‘Diary of a Modern Country Gardener’ published by Orphans Publishing and is the voice of the popular Candide Gardening podcast ‘Fresh from the pod’.

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