Spring blooms at the Garden in a myriad of shapes, colors, and fragrances. Some of the first flowering plants in the early spring landscape are species tulips, also referred to as wild or botanical tulips.
Perhaps not as well known as the taller, more formal, hybridized tulips, species tulips deserve greater respect and wider use in area gardens. These low-growing, often two-toned tulips are the reliable perennials in a group of bulbs much better known for its thousands of hybridized annuals.
There are more than 100 different species of tulips growing in their native ranges of eastern Europe, western Asia, and China. Only a small percentage of them are nursery-propagated and available to gardeners. There is considerable variety in the color and shape of their foliage, often mottled or striped. Many species tulips produce several flowers per stem. Some are fragrant and starlike, while others are shaped in the classic bowl form. Most open fully only on sunny days, often revealing a brilliant, contrasting eye or different-colored anthers in their centers. Short in stature but sturdy enough to confront spring thunderstorms, species tulips are quick to multiply by underground stolons, by small bulblets, or by the prolific amount of seed they set. (Most of the modern hybrid tulips are sterile.)
All tulips prefer full sun and exceptionally well-drained soil. Lighten heavy clay soils with compost or other organic matter. Tulips benefit from a ready supply of moisture during their spring growth but require an extended dry period during their summer dormancy. For this reason, they will grow more vigorously in garden areas that are not watered excessively during hot summers. Try planting them in expanses of ground cover, at the feet of spring-blooming shrubs, or intermingled with established perennials or other permanent plants in the mixed border. Neighboring plants shelter and support tulips in strong wind and also may conceal yellowing foliage after the tulips flower.
Plant these little bulbs in late fall at three to four times the height of the bulb. Apply a top-dressing of slow-release fertilizer over the soil, water in well, and apply 2 to 3 inches of mulch. If rodents are a problem in your garden, avoid the mulch, since it can provide a nesting area. Instead, apply 1 to 2 inches of sharp gravel to the planting hole before adding the bulbs. And to protect against deer, cover the planting area with wire screening, which can be removed as the tulips start to grow in spring.
As 750,000 bulbs begin to bloom throughout the Garden, look for species tulips among the other jewels of the early spring garden.