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Sharon Thompson, garden writer & speaker
Photographs Sharon F. Thompson

I admit I am a fool for bulbs. I love wandering through the catalogues, circling this daffodil or that crocus. But, I always skip the tulip section. I never felt they were worth my effort - or finances - to plant one year and compost the next. Then I experimented with species tulips and discovered a horticultural oxymoron: a tulip that comes back.

Species tulips are the ancestors of our modern tulips. Native to warm climates of the Middle East, these demure tulip interpretations differ from those hybrid divas that fill bulb catalogues. Instead of long stems, these stems range from 4” to 10”. Instead of giant silky blooms, these blooms are petite. However, what really makes them noteworthy is they come back; some will even multiply.

My first species tulip experiment involved a bag of small bulbs labeled ‘Lilac Wonder’ (Tulipa bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’). The first year their flowering prowess was fairly ho-hum. But I was late planting them – I recall it was February – and decided they should have another year to prove themselves. ‘Lilac Wonder’ turned out to be just that - a wonder. The blooms, borne on short stems, are 3” wide affairs featuring petals of delicate pink overlaid with a wash of lavender. A sweet spot of bright yellow at the base of each petal keeps the flowers from being too demure. Coming up amongst my prostrate rosemary, they look just right.

For years I gave ‘Lady Jane,’ (Tulipa clusiana “Lady Jane’) short shrift during my catalogue perusing, thinking she was too subtle for my tastes. Thank goodness I reconsidered. What she lacks in punchy color, she makes up for in numbers and grace. Her tapered buds have petals of soft pinkish-red exteriors that open to white interiors. The blooms close up at night, so my clumps of Lady Janes look different as the day progresses. As a bonus, the blooms morph into delicate seedpods that make a unique addition to dried arrangements. Her narrow foliage is discreetly silver gray in color and disappears quickly once blooms fade. But the best part about this tulip: she has gone forth and multiplied. The dozen or so I planted several years ago have tripled in number.

Although their blooms appear dainty, species tulips are surprisingly sturdy: without a top-heavy load of big petals like their hybridized cousins, they easily withstand the vagaries of spring weather. In my area of the country, they bloom in mid-March and last for several weeks.

Like all bulbs, species tulips need good sunlight and good drainage for peak performance. Keep in mind that in warmer climates, it’s never too late to plant a spring bulb, but it can be too early. They should be planted after soil starts to cool - any time from November through January. Keep them in a cool location until then.

Here’s more good news about species tulips: they are inexpensive. Take Anna Pavord’s advice in her book, Bulb:  “… no garden can have too many bulbs. Splurge. It’s the only way.”

Bulb sources:

Sharon Thompson is a well known South Carolina Garden Writer and Speaker. Her articles appear in several Master Gardener newsletters, The State newspaper, Lake Murray-Columbia Magazine and Carolina Gardener magazine. She enjoys speaking to Master Gardener groups and Garden Clubs.

Posted November 15, 2013

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