A mass of red tulips behind a bed of blooming pansies can be a real traffic-stopper in March. Apartment and office complexes use hybrid tulips to showcase their landscapes as spring begins.
The tall tulips have been hybridized for centuries to produce their intense hues of red, orange, yellow and purple. They were hybridized from wild tulips, the so-called “species tulips”. There are more than a dozen kinds of species tulips. Their blooms and leaves are much smaller than the hybrid tulips. The great advantage of the species tulips is that they can grow year after year in the South.
Hybrid tulips require three months of cool temperatures and bright sunshine after blooming. The leaves collect energy from the sun and form the bloom for next year. In the South, there is barely one month of cool temperatures after tulips bloom. Sometimes, only half of the tulips that bloomed in a bed one year will bloom the following year. With a perfect site and good care, hybrid tulips’ life span can be lengthened – but this is rarely the case. Hybrid tulips are best treated as annual flowers, discarding the bulbs after bloom each spring.
On the other hand, species tulips have a tougher nature. They like well-drained beds in semi-shade to full sun. Folks at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, recommends three species tulips: Tulipa clusiana, Tulipa tarda, and Tulipa kaufmanniana (in particular “Red Riding Hood”). In their experience, these come back year after year and multiply if planted in the correct spot.
Both the species and the hybrid tulips are planted in late fall, after the ground has cooled. The bulbs should be planted 4 to 6 inches deep in a loose, well-drained planting bed. Because the species tulips are smaller, they look best in a rock garden or at the front of a small perennial bed. Tulips should be fertilized at least twice per year, in autumn (or at planting) and in spring, when the shoots first appear. Commercial bulb fertilizers (or 8-8-8) at a rate of 1 rounded Tablespoon per square foot are better than bone meal. Good plant nutrition and removing the flower stalks when they fade will slow the decline of hybrid tulips.
Cheryl Aldrich at Hastings Garden Center says to try planting early flowering tulips and removing the flowers immediately. These will then have a longer time to receive sunlight than later flowered varieties.
Most Atlanta gardeners have discovered that tulips will only bloom for a couple of years. How disappointing that these richly colored harbingers of spring are usually an annual investment!
Now comes good news from Dr. August De Hertogh, professor of horticulture at North Carolina State University. He says that he knows of one garden in Raleigh where the tulips are still blooming 28 years after they were planted! According to Dr. De Hertogh, absolutely well drained soil is the key to achieving repeat bloom. If the soil is clayey, add compost or manure to a depth of twelve inches. Have the soil tested to make sure the pH is between 6 and 7.
The site should also receive at least five hours of direct sun each day, preferably in the morning. Since the bulbs should not get warmer than 70 degrees, De Hertogh recommends setting the bulbs a full eight inches deep and planting perennials over them. The shade of the perennial leaves will keep the soil cool in the summer. Tulip bulbs need fertilizer – three to four pounds of 8-8-8 per 100 square feet at planting and two pounds more before the bulbs bloom.
Dr. De Hertogh says that some tulips can be expected to last longer than others. Among his favorites are ‘Parade’ and ‘Golden Parade’, ‘Oxford’ and ‘Golden Oxford’ plus ‘Don Quichotte’ and ‘Jewel of Spring’.
Q: While my wife was in the hospital recently I brought her a pot of tulips. Currently they are fading fast. Is there any way I can preserve the plants and replant them this spring?
A: You can certainly plant them – – but they aren’t likely to bloom ever again. All bulbs depend on their leaves to absorb the sun’s energy in order to enable future blooms. Tulips require their leaves to stay healthy and green for at least two months after they bloom in spring. Yours were forced to bloom out of season. Crowded into a small pot, the leaves will quickly yellow after the blooms fade. You should give them an honored place on your compost pile.
Even in a garden setting, we just get too hot in May for outdoor tulips to keep their foliage green for the needed period. My friend Erica Glasener says that ‘species’ tulips, rather than the bright blooming hybrid tulips we enjoy each spring, are more likely to bloom year after year in the same spot. She lists Tulipa bakeri, Tulipa clusiana var.chrysantha, Tulipa gregii, Tulipa kaufmanniana, Tulipa tarda, and Tulipa turkestanica as possibilities. Some garden centers in Atlanta carry species tulips but specialty bulb catalogs offer a wider selection.