Colorful hybrid tulips are an iconic symbol of spring. Planted in the fall, they’ll light up next year’s landscape with their tall stems and cup shaped blooms. In subsequent years, they’re likely to decline – sending up fewer blooms, weak foliage and sometimes not bursting through the soil at all. Allowing the foliage to senesce (turn yellow, limp and easy to pull up) after the flowers fade does help supply nutrients to the bulb for the following year, but the popular tulip bulb generally does not bloom for more than a year or two. In fact, tulips in public gardens are often treated as annuals and replanted each year.
An alternative to the common, hybridized “Holland” tulip are species or botanical tulips. They are native to Central Asia and other Steppe regions, areas that are climatically similar to Colorado. This group of tulips are shorter (6-12 inches tall), will naturalize, or spread each year by self-sown seeds or stolons and some varieties will send out multiple stems. Good drainage and a sunny location with room for the plants to expand are ideal. The bulbs also do well in gravelly soil and are used successfully in rock gardens.
Mid September to late October is an ideal time to plant, setting the bulbs in clumps or drifts and burying 4 inches deep or as recommended for the specific cultivar. Colors range from delicate pastels to vibrant reds and pinks, blooms can be bi-colored and foliage is often grey-green or stippled. Since the foliage is smaller and more compact, the die-back is less unappealing.
Species tulips can be found online and at independent nurseries, where they are sold in pre-packaged bags and found near other small bulbs such as crocus and muscari.
While I love the flashy hybrid tulip, I’m adding reliable, graceful species tulips to my garden this year too, how bout you?
Written by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener