Name: tulip (Tulipa varieties and cultivars)
Plant type: spring-flowering perennial herbaceous bulb
Height: to around 60cm in flower
Foliage: arising from the bulb in varying shapes and sizes. Most often a truncated sword-like shape clasping the flower stem base, green/silvery-grey in colour, and 15–30cm in length.
Climate: cool temperate and suitably cool areas in warm temperate zones.
Soil: good-quality, free-draining soil. Bulb or premium potting mix in pots.
Position: full sun or moderate shade. Must be protected from wind.
Flowering: goblet-like flowers in a multitude of colours and forms from late August to late October, depending on variety, planting time and location.
Feeding: feed with an organic product such as blood and bone at planting, apply a controlled-release fertiliser as leaves start to develop.
Watering: reliable moisture while actively growing, but never wet.
There’s something about spring flowering bulbs. While much of the garden is still in a winter slumber, their flowers burst forth with incredible, contagious cheerfulness, helping to shake off the last of the winter blues.
There is no bulb that is quite as colourful, exotic and romantic as the tulip. Many gardeners put them in the too-hard basket, regarding them as difficult to grow, fussy and unreliable, but the fact is, if a few basic conditions are met, you’ll find them no harder to grow than a daffodil!
The tulip is arguably the most cross-bred and hybridised of all of the traditional spring flowering bulbs—today there are thousands of recognised varieties. It’s also likely that it was the first ‘collectable’ plant, due to the enormous range of flower colours, patterns and forms. With the tulip, it’s all about the flowers.
The flowers are held on very long (up to 65cm), smooth stems. The best description of a ‘typical’ tulip is that the flower is goblet-shaped when young, becoming more cup-like in shape as it ages.
The colour range is nothing short of mind-boggling—the only colour you won't find is blue. You will find just about every solid and pastel colour, as well as wild patterns that combine colours in spectacular streaks and “flames”’. Interestingly, these patterned forms get their appearance as a side-effect of a type of tulip-specific virus called “Tulip Breaking virus”. There are even flower varieties described as “black”.
The foliage is quite attractive, too. It arises before the flower and is often a greeny-silver. The leaves are variable, but are often shaped a little like a sword blade, and slightly cupped.
Some bulbs are quite adaptable to different situations and climates. The most notable are the narcissus group, daffodils and jonquils, and the freesias.
These bulbs can be naturalised, which means they can be planted and left undisturbed, even in warmer areas, and they will flower every year, often forming large clumps or drifts. All you need to do is feed them at the start of the season and then remove foliage as it dies back. It is important to leave the foliage until it totally browns off, as the bulb needs to store energy for next year. Given the right conditions, tulips can be naturalised too.
The tulip is grown for a variety of uses, including:
Preferred conditions for planting tulips
Tulips can be grown even in warm zones as “one shots”. This is because quality purchased bulbs are grown to be pre-primed with a flower ready to go. They’ll flower once, but they won’t be able to go through the cycle required to flower again, so treat them like an annual plant.
Follow all the steps recommended for chilling and planting, just plant them at the deepest recommended depth, and make sure you select a spot that’s protected from heat or harsh sun.
Caring for tulips
Tulips are quite maintenance-free once planted and growing. However, they will benefit from occasional applications of a liquid seaweed or organically-fortified product.
If bulbs are to be naturalised or lifted for replanting next season, it’s very important that the foliage be allowed to completely finish its cycle. This means leaving it on until it dies right back. In this period of its growth cycle, the bulb is storing energy for next year’s flowering season, so if foliage is removed too early or becomes too shaded, then flowering will likely skip a year.
Tulips will naturalise well in regions that have mild spring conditions and cool to cold winters. To naturalise, they must be planted in a spot that receives summer shade and heat protection. Adding a thick layer of mulch once the foliage has died back can be worthwhile.
Prune foliage back once it has become papery and brittle.
If your area isn’t right for naturalising or if you have been growing pots then you can lift and save your bulbs for next season.
Diseases and pests
Tulips are not prone to many diseases or pests, but keep an eye out for the following:
Tulip bulbs will generally be purchased, not propagated. The exception to this is naturalised bulbs.
As bulbs grow they produce offsets, or daughter bulbs. If bulbs have been naturalised, after a few years they can be lifted while dormant and the off-sets can be removed for replanting.
Tulips regenerate and the original mother bulbs die every year. If you lift a clump in autumn, a withered mother bulb should be visible. This will have been replaced by a new central daughter bulb, off which will be further offsets.
The offsets that can be removed will be larger and easily removed.
These offsets are best planted in pots to begin growth, and will not flower for at least two years. The new central bulb with younger offsets still attached can be immediately replanted or stored.
Daffodil: the perfect addition to your spring flowering bulb collection.
Apple tree: with winter sun and summer shade, the space beneath an apple tree is perfect for bulb growing.
Pansies: fill the gaps between your bulbs with cheery, winter flowering pansies and violas.
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