The Unusual Suspects: Parrot Tulips

Grow these exotic, colorful beauties in your garden, plus get tips on other spring-flowering bulbs.
Parrot Tulips

Apricot Parrot

'Apricot Parrot' has beautiful pink and yellow-orange flowers that look good enough to eat.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Dig.Drop.Done

Image courtesy of Dig.Drop.Done

'Apricot Parrot' has beautiful pink and yellow-orange flowers that look good enough to eat.

Delicate daffodils and other spring flowers are just a memory by the time summer arrives. But you won’t miss them when you grow flamboyant parrot tulips, which boldly take center stage later in the growing season. 

Parrot tulips are named for their bright colors, which look as if they’ve been painted onto the ruffled petals. You can find these flowers in almost every hue, including orange, red, violet, indigo, pink, yellow and near black. Some varieties are available in solid colors, while others are marked with multicolored stripes and splashes.

Developed from mutations of late-flowering tulips, the parrot types first appeared in 17th century France and made their way to the Netherlands about a century later. Today they’re hardy to the U.S. in zones 4 through 7.

Because the flowers are delicate, parrot tulips need to be planted where they’ll be protected from strong winds. They’re also vulnerable to extremes of heat and cold. Try growing them near the side of your house to help shelter them, or grow them in pots you can move indoors.

While parrot tulips may need extra care, they’re worth the trouble. The blooms open to almost 5 inches across, and the stems grow 14 to 20 inches tall, making them great for cutting. Most are unscented, but some, like ‘Orange Favorite’, ‘Blue Parrot’ and ‘Blumex Favorite’ have sweet perfumes.

Plant parrot tulips from early fall into November for mid- to late-spring blooms. They need full sun and well-drained soil. Place the bulbs 5 inches deep and 4 to 6 inches apart, and water them thoroughly. Mulch them for the winter, and remove the mulch when they sprout in spring.

Parrot tulips don’t need supplemental watering until active growth begins. Then water weekly and feed monthly with a 10-10-10 fertilizer.

Wait until the flowers fade and the leaves die back naturally to dig up the bulbs. Store them in a warm, dry location until fall’s cooler temperatures arrive, when you can replant them outdoors.

There are many other bulbs you can plant in fall for spring flowers. Don’t overlook these lesser-known bulbs when you’re ready to dig in:

Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis) – “Frits,” as they’re called, bear hanging, bell-shaped blooms on stems that reach 3 ½ feet to 5 feet tall. Tufts of green leaves crown the orange, red and yellow flowers. These eye-catching plants are attractive in woodland settings, borders or rock gardens.

Frits are not for everyone; Crown Imperial has an unpleasant odor that discourages hungry wildlife from nibbling on the plants. That’s why it’s a good idea to grow them away from where you’ll be walking or sitting, so you can admire them without smelling them!

The bulbs need sun to part sun and regular watering while they’re putting out new growth. Plant them 4 to 5 inches deep in fertile, well-drained soil. Don’t be surprised if it takes a year or two to see flowers, or if the bulbs skip a year between blooms. To avoid gaps in your beds and borders, plant extras or fill in with other flowers and foliage.

Snowdrops (Galanthus) – These sweet flowers are often seen breaking through the snow in January, February or March. The nodding white blooms are shaped like little bells, while the leaves are green and grass-like. Try snowdrops in rock gardens or woodland settings, where they’ll naturalize easily. Plant the bulbs in the fall, 3 to 4 inches deep, in moist soil enriched with humus. Depending on the species you choose, snowdrops are hardy to zones 3 through 8.

Alliums – Ornamental alliums are easy-to-grow bulbs related to onions, chives, garlic and shallots. Plant them with the pointed ends of the bulbs sticking up, about 3 inches deep, from September to October. They prefer well-drained soil and full sun. Like snowdrops, they will naturalize. Your alliums may start sprouting in the fall, but expect the flowers to appear the following spring to early summer. You’ll find these dramatic-looking flowers, which are carried atop tall stems, in white, blue, purple, rose, lavender and other colors.

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