Growing Wild Tulips

Consider the hybrid’s perennial cousin when planting bulbs in fall.
Tulipa clusiana v. chrysantha

Tulipa clusiana v. chrysantha

Tulipa clusiana v. chrysantha is hot pink and one of the taller tulip species.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden

Image courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden

Tulipa clusiana v. chrysantha is hot pink and one of the taller tulip species.

Packages of bulbs with pictures of bold, brightly-colored tulips are lining garden center shelves, begging us to take them home with us for getting that head start on next spring.  As much as we dread that back-bending chore of planting bulbs, no one can deny that the fall ritual brings quite a payoff six months later.

But what many don’t realize is that some tulip bulbs don’t have to be planted over and over again every autumn. Unlike the commonly known hybrid tulips, the lesser-known species tulips need only be planted once, and like daffodils, they naturalize, coming back year after year. 

Species tulips, or “wild tulips,” as they are often called, are not as showy or as tall as the hybrids, but these stockier plants  can still pack quite a punch of color when planted in clusters. Wild tulips also are tougher than the hybrids and can tolerate less-than-ideal soil conditions. While the hybrids love loamy, well-composted beds, species tulips are quite happy, thank you, to thrive in rock gardens, even sandy soil if well drained and in full sun.

That’s because most of the species tulips originated in the mountains and slopes of the Mideast, China and Central Asia, where dry summers and freezing winters are the norm. Thus, they thrive on neglect. In this country, they are best suited for zones 3 through 7.

Blooming from early to late spring, wild tulips have smaller flowers than the hybrids but offer vibrant colors ranging from red, orange and yellow to pink cream and white, along with some bi-colors and stripes.  Plant them in clusters or drifts for best effect.

Like all spring bulbs,  species tulips should be planted in fall, and because they are smaller than the hybrids, they would be planted only about four inches deep, pointed end up. Remember than the stems they produce grow shorter than other tulips (some only 6 to 10 inches tall) so don’t put them at the back of a border if combining with their taller hybrid cousins.

Here are a few to consider:

  • Tulipa  ‘Little Princess’ – Dark centers ringed in yellow extending to pumpkin orange petals.
  • Tulipa batalinii  ‘Bright Gem’ -- Apricot yellow with a bronzy sheen. 
  • Tulipa clusiana v. chrysantha – Basically white (although various shades of  pink and yellow, too) with the three outer petals red with a pink band on the back. 
  • Tulipa bakerii  ‘Lilac Wonder’ – Sunny yellow heart with lilac and pink petals.
  • Tulipa humilia ‘Violacea’ – Violet-red flowers on stems that grow only 6 inches tall.  
  • Tulipa praestans ‘Shotgun’ – Multi-flowering tulip with red-flecked orange flowers and black stamens in center.
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