This article discusses bulbs: the history, uses and occasionally the philosophy that surround the humble bulb.
Tulips are, along with daffodils one of the most iconic bulbs of the garden. Wildly popular, they are the national flower of a number of countries which have a wide range of mountainous areas where they are naturally found. Generally Tulips favour cold dry winters and hot summers, making them hard to naturalize (excepting groups 12, 14 and 15) in the UK.
In-particular the Netherlands have been synonymous with tulip growing for many years and at one point during ‘tulip mania’ in1634 - 1637, tulips were worth incredible amounts of money. A cultivar called Semper augustus was considered the most beautiful bulb in the world and was sold for equivalent amounts to 10 years skilled labour!
Almost every colour has been observed in tulips, baring true blue.
During ‘Tulip Mania’ some truly incredible colours were formed. Tulips were infected by a virus in the Polyviridae family TBV. This is a family of positive-strand RNA viruses that encompasses more than 30% of known plant viruses, many of which are of great agricultural significance. However for the Tulip farmers, this virus produced incredible variants in colour. Unfortunately these bulbs were prone to degradation and almost all of these have been lost.
Semper augustus was once considered the most beautiful bulb in the world, and it was defiantly the most expensive! The magnificent colouration on the petals is due to the tulip breaking virus TBV, at the time this was unknown and the tragic irony is that the virus degrades the bulb making it short lived and difficult to reproduce.
While the TBV virus created beautiful Tulips, the leaves were weak and stunted which likely mean it flowered only occasionally. The bulbs that were worth 10 years skilled labour were unlikely to last more than 2-3 years and prove very hard to propagate. The only remnant you will find of this type of tulip are the Rembrandt group. Unfortunately the modern Rembrandt tulips are only a shadow of the old cultivars.
Tulips are an oddity among bulbs, they like to be planted as deep as you can, ideally up to six times the depth of the bulb, doing so helps anchor the bulb (even for the tallest of them), increases their chance to survive the summer (as the subsoil is drier than the upper layers) and reduces blindness in recovering bulbs.
Tulips are best planted as late as you can before the frosts, to better protect them from diseases that can attack them in warm damp ground, they do very well in a sunny location, although they can tolerate shade in their first year (as the energy for flowering is stored in the bulb) and appreciate a well drained soil.
Theoretically you can plant them as late as January, and the bulbs store very well compared to daffs and other autumn planting bulbs, but we recommend October-November as it's much easier to plant them before the ground freezes!
Tulips are fairly easy to look after, simply remove finished flowers to stop them going to seed, and allow the leaves to persist for six weeks afterwards or until the foliage goes yellow. This is when they recover the energy required to flower next year. While the leaves are up, they benefit from a liquid feed of growmore or another balanced fertiliser as this will help them rebuild the exhausted bulb. Amy says that she leaves them in the ground and hopes for the best, rather than lifting them she has found that as long as they are planted deep enough in the first place there isn't a need to lift them. However if they are shallowly planted or in pots, after the leaves are cut down, you can dig them up and let them rest for a few days. After the soil has dried on them, trim the roots and any remaining top growth, then dust with sulphur and put somewhere dry in sawdust. There is a good chance they will store and can be planted again next Autumn!
Tulips are divided into 15 groups that each share a form and characteristics. If you want to get the most out of them then it can be worthwhile checking which group suits you best.
Single flowered cultivars with reasonably short stems and early flowers. The Flowers are often not quite as tight as Darwin hybrids and tend to be oval shaped.
2. Double Early
Double flowered but otherwise very simmilar to Group 1, The flowers tend to be larger and are very good for cut flowers, often resembling peony flowers.
Originally hybrids of 1-2 and 5-11 these now have their own group, they have slightly stouter flowers than the groupes 1-2 and flower mid-way through the season, tending to last longer than the early flowers.
4. Darwin Hybrid
This is a hybrid group of tulips that are the most recognised and popular in the garden, they have the classic egg shaped flowers that most people associate with tulips on long strong stems. They naturalize reasonably well and are the tulips you most often find as cut flowers.
The original Darwin group they were crossed from is now part of Group 5
5. Single Late
Tall Single stemmed late flowering tulips (now contains darwinni and cottage groups) that generally have more squat flowers on strong stems. As the name suggests, the flowers are often later than other tulips.
6. Lily Flowered
Single Flowering plants with an interesting reflexed flower, they often have strong colours and provide a fantastic flower that is a bit less traditional than some. Mid-late season.
Previously only single flowering, these tulips are now appearing as doubles as well, they have a frilly edge to their petals and they can be almost reminicant of dianthus or sweet williums. They are best grown in a sheltered place as rain can potentially get trapped in and cause the flower to brown early.
A rare group of tulip with a green flush on the outer petals, that can accentuate and draw attention to the flower. These are a fantastic choice for someone who wants something a bit unusual for their garden. Mid-late flowering.
A very rare group, produced by tulip breaking virus, or grown to mimic it. True Rembrant are hard to propagate and never found commercially. This is the group Semper Augustus belonged to.
Modern Rembrant tulips are disease free and much more accessible, they are mutants of existing tulips but are only pale echoes of the old now extinct cultivars.
Similar to the Group 7 tulips, these have frilly twisted petals with large flowers and tend to flower later than Group 7
The double version of Group 5, the flowers are even larger than the single lates and the double effect gives them their other epithet of peony flowered tulips.
This group resembles its original species closely, it has a carmine/red blush on the outside petals and is comparatively small, it opens in the sunlight to reveal flowers reminicant of water lillies.
They are superb for overwintering and with short stems they are resilient against hard wind and have a great flower / leaf ratio.
13: Fosterianna (emperor)
These tulips were bread from a wild species of tulip found in central Asia. They retain broad flowers with truly incredible colour. The flowers open up in full sun and reach sizes of 16-18 cm. Early flowering.
This group is superficially similar to group 12, it flowers later and like group 12, they have a large proportion of flower to stem. They often have paterned leaves that bow to the ground, leaving the flowers unobstructed. They natrualize well and are great for rich colour.
15. Species (botanical)
This group has ended up a bit of a catch-all for tulips not easily put into other groups, this includes semi-domesticated tulips and wild tulips. They have the closest similarity to their wild breathrin and often have simple or delicate flowers rather than the massive commercialized cultivars. They make a wonderful display very different from modern tulips, these make a great contrast.
16: Multi-flowering (unofficial)
This is not actually a group although many places list it. These tulips produce generally 3-7 flowers per bulb and flower for a long time.