If you want beautiful tulips that last from one year to the next, choose species tulip. Not as well-known but utterly enchanting.
I gain almost as much pleasure choosing which tulips to plant as I do when they flower. The variety of colour, height, scent and flowering time is dizzying and I experiment freely. Flitting year to year from rich, baroque colour combinations to soft, muted pastels. I am in this respect faithless. Sometimes my infidelity is rewarded and I discover wonderful new mixes. Other times it’s all a bit of a let-down as things fail to live up to expectation.
Indeed, such promiscuity isn’t without risk. But it’s my risk to take. However, when it comes to specifying tulips for clients it’s important to keep risk to a minimum. At Semple Begg we only ever specify tulips and mixes we know will work.
Often, we’re asked for tulips that ‘will last’ and this is a tricky request to satisfy. The tall, seductive tulips referred to above are for the most part ephemeral. Great in the first year, with diminishing returns from there on. Some are more reliably perennial than others but if the requirement is for longevity over short-term impact then we recommend species tulips.
Species Tulip Trial
Species tulips are the direct descendants of the wild tulips that flower on the mountainsides of Central Asia. The same strains that first made their way to Europe in the sixteenth century, smuggled out of Constantinople in a diplomatic pouch belonging to the Flemish Ambassador, Ogier de Busbecq.
Last year we trialled several species that will, if the conditions are right, return year after year and also increase in number (naturalise). They are generally smaller and less showy than the garden/bred tulips but no less beautiful.
In fact, it’s easy to develop a preference for their wild, fine and delicate appearance. Wise counsel would suggest planting out species tulips in borders and grass where they can be left to do their thing and (with a few notable exceptions) saving the big dazzlers for pots where they can be treated like annuals.
Trial Results 2016
Tulipa linifolia Batalini ‘Bright Gem’
From a rather unpromising start – a splayed starfish of rather tough looking leaves – ‘Bright Gem’ grows into a lovely apricot tulip with shades of pale toffee. At 20cm tall it’s a bit shorter in height than most garden tulips and the flower head is of altogether more dainty proportions. The curled tips of the reflexive outer petals give the flower a rather louche charm as the tulip ages, like a kiss curl of hair emerging from a snug ‘30s cloche.
Suitable for planting in borders amidst low emerging perennial growth. Will return each year and slowly naturalise to increase in number. This one of our favourites.
Flowering: Late April H. 20cm
Tulipa clusiana ‘Peppermint Stick’
As the name suggests this showy species tulip has the two-tone appearance of a stick of rock. This makes it a bit trickier to mingle in a border but it’s not without its sugary charms. We found planting in slightly longer spring grass beneath fruit trees knocked it back into the realms of good taste. At 30cm it’s tall enough to create a presence in grass and if you’re lucky enough to apple trees to plant it beneath flowering may coincide – the interplay between the complementary colours works well. It may produce leaves for the first year or so but it will flower and spread.
Flowering: Mid-April H. 30cm
This bright, fresh, elegant tulip absolutely sings out that spring has arrived. Yellow can be harsh but the grassy green feathering that flickers up and out from the stem and the soft mulberry tips of the reflexive petals save it from this fate. The head droops slightly from the long stem giving it a delicate appearance but don’t be fooled this is a tough tulip that flowers long and hard through storms and rain. It doesn’t mind a bit of shade where it works as an illuminating highlight in combination with Euphorbias. Another returner and naturaliser. And another favourite.
Flowering: Mid-April. H. 30cm.
Tulipa hageri ‘Little Beauty’
Well named, the proportions of ‘Little Beauty’ are more like a crocus than a tulip. It also shares the crocuses propensity to multiply rapidly, forming colonies that will persist for decades. However unlike the crocus we wouldn’t plant this tulip in grass. It flowers later, in April when the grass will be too high to appreciate it. Instead plant it somewhere you can enjoy it. I like it best before it opens, when it looks like the skirt soft pink ballgown overlaid with whispers of misty white, blue, green and toffee. Once open it blazes like a super nova: dark provocative stamens protrude from a violet blue centre that fades to palest indigo then on to flashy pink.
Flowering: April H. 15cm.