Species tulips – what’s special about them and how to grow them in your own garden - Cambridge Botanic Garden (2024)

Tulips are an iconic spring flowering bulb, providing weeks of cheerful spring colour in our gardens. They are also some of the oldest cultivated plants. The blousey hybrids and cultivars we enjoy in our gardens today descend from wild species tulips, whose native habitats are high up in the mountains of Europe and Central Asia. These are now seriously threatened (read more), making the National Collection of species tulips held here at the Garden all the more valuable for research and conservation.

Our National Collection of species tulips, represents about 60 of the species that occur in the wild and is looked after by our Alpine and Woodland team.

Simon Wallis, Alpine and Woodland Assistant, tells us more about the collection, explains why species tulips are great for both garden and pot culture and many are easy to grow if their basic requirements are met.

What’s special about species tulips?

There are around 78 species of tulips that flower in a wide range colours from March through to early May. Unlike hybrid tulips, species bulbs flower every year without any depletion in vigour. They have a simple beauty and are always perfectly proportioned and come in a wide array of colours, height and flower form. For example you have the classic large red flowered tall Tulipa fosteriana to the lilac-pink cup shaped Tulipa saxatilis with yellow central blotch and bright green foliage.

How are species tulips different to the ones we grow in our gardens and how are they related?

Many of the tulips we grow in our gardens are hybrids which often have very impressive large flowers in bold sets of colours. They normally flower very well in their first year but their vigour quickly reduces year on year. This means many are almost grown as short-lived perennials and dug up and removed after one or two years. Species will grow year on year often increasing in vigour and spreading naturally once planted in the garden. Species tulips are often more perfectly formed and look more natural. There are even some that are stoloniferous and are great for naturalising in grass. These include yellow Tulipa sylvestris and the deep red Tulipa sprengeri. Tulipa greigii from Kazakhstan with its purple blotched leaves and large wide cupped flowers and Tulipa kaufmanniana from the Tein Shan Mountains are both parents of many of the popular hybrids we see today in our garden centres and markets.

What is the tulip’s native habitat like and what can we take from this when looking after our own garden tulips in order for them to thrive?

The origin and centre of diversity for tulips is the Tien Shan Mountain range a western outcrop of the Himalayas. The countries this range straddles includes Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, China and Uzbekistan. Other hotspots where many species are found include Iran, Turkey, Armenia and Crete. All these countries have long, hot, very dry summers with cold winters when most of the rainfall occurs. Not conditions we have here in East Anglia! All tulips escape these hostile dry summers by dying back and storing all next year’s growth and energy in a geophyte we call a bulb.

The best way we can replicate this if planting outside is to grow them in a sunny place in well drained gritty soil. Try to plant them deep at least 20cm, this way you will reduce the possibilities of Tulip Fire a nasty fungal disease. Also try to protect them from strong prevailing winds to stop the taller flowered species from being bashed around. A final warning Muntjac deer love eating the fresh foliage and flowers.

What are your top tips to grow tulips successfully?

  1. Good free draining soil.
  2. Plant them in a sunny position e.g. SouthWest or South position.
  3. Protect from strong windy locations.
  4. If grown in pots feed regularly (once every couple of weeks) when in growth.
  5. If grown in pots repot at least every two years.
  6. Start with easy to grow species first such as T. saxatilis, T. biflora, T. clusiana, T. tarda.

What can we do to encourage successional tulip flowering each year?

Many of the hybrids are not reliable – they are all about flower power and exhaust themselves out in year one. The Darwin series of tulip hybrids do flower for several years but the flowers can bleach out over a long period. The best answer for yearly successional flowering is to grow species and not hybrids and cultivars. When growing species in your garden if you don’t want seed, dead head the flowers so all the energy can go into producing next year’s bulb.

What are your tips for growing tulips in pots?

  1. Feed your plants often around every two week when in growth. Like us, Tulips need a regular dinner.
  2. Use a Loam based compost such as a John Innes mix add extra grit for good drainage.
  3. Repot at least every two years. When repotting we place our bulbs on a thin layer of sharp sand to help reduce the risk of basal rot.
  4. Locate your pots in a sunny position.
  5. Water on a regular basis – Tulips are thirsty plants.
  6. They look best in terracotta pots.
  7. Once the plants have died back, water the pots very infrequently and very lightly. If the pots are plunged in sand, water the sand plunge only.
  8. Many of the small species such as linifolia and Tulipa humilis ‘Aucheriana’ look perfect in pots or troughs.
  9. Place them somewhere in your garden where you can admire their beauty.

Do you have a favourite and if so why?

My number one species is Tulipa montana (scroll above for picture) from the Alborz Mountains in Northern Iran where it grows at altitudes of between 1200-2500 metres. This is the quintessential red tulip. It’s a perfectly formed plant, growing only to 10cm tall, its scarlet red flowers with a small black blotch and golden yellow anthers open out on warm days. It has grey green leaves which are normally undulating on the edges. It flowers in April.

Species tulips – what’s special about them and how to grow them in your own garden - Cambridge Botanic Garden (2024)


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