IN HIS Guardian column, the late, great plantsman
Christopher Lloyd said that if he could have only one spring
flower, it would be the tulip. Now is the time to plant them.
Out of the many tulip groups he chose the Lily-flowered as his
favourite for their hourglass blooms. Forced to choose just one
variety, it was "Queen of Sheba", which has brown-red pointy petals
edged in orange. But he did concede that in his garden, although
lasting more than one year, the bulbs gradually decreased in size
and number over time, and needed replenishing.
This tendency to fizzle out, left in the ground, is tulips'
downside. Of course, the bulbs can be lifted when the foliage has
faded, stored in a cool, dry place over summer, and replanted in
the autumn. But many tulips have enough vigour to become border
All tulip bulbs wither as the plant above ground expands, but,
over the growing season, new bulbs form, and the largest can often
support a new flower the following year.
For a start, there are other tulips within the master's favoured
Lily-flowered group. "White Triumphator" is pure white; "Sapporo"
starts buttery yellow, fading to cream; and "West Point" is bright
yellow and particularly curvaceous. Given good drainage and full
sun, these should all last three years or more.
My preferred tulips for leaving in the ground are those within
the Fosteriana group. These are derived from the species Tulipa
fosteriana, a flame-red beauty, itself suitable for
naturalising. "Madame Lefeber" has inherited the brilliant red
flowers, which have a black "eye" and are set off beautifully by
grey-green foliage. "Orange Emperor" has soft orange blooms with a
yellow base, and "Purissima" is a creamy white.
Some of the smaller tulip species are great for creating natural
drifts of spring colour. These span the tulip flowering season.
Tulipa turkestanica displays small white cups with bright
yellow centres at the end of March, and Tulipa sprengeri
shows brick-red blooms in early June. Tulipa greigii is
worth growing as the straight species, but has also led to the
breeding of the Greigii group of tulips, with purple or brown
patterning on the leaves.
T. greigii "Red Riding Hood" retains the dwarf stature
of the species, and has chocolate stripes along the leaves. "Ali
Baba" is deep pink with spotted foliage; "Compostella" and
"Toronto" are both red-flowered. The multi-headed scarlet T.
praestans "Fusilier" is another excellent subject for
If you have a free-draining soil, you have the best chance of
your tulip clumps' persisting and even thickening, and some of the
secondary bulbs' reaching flowering size. On clay soils, add grit
to the planting hole to prevent waterlogging.
The rule of thumb with most bulbs is to plant at three times the
depth of the bulb, but for perennial tulips I would go deeper: 15cm
to 25cm for chunky hybrid bulbs. Fertiliser is not needed the first
year, but bone meal or tomato feed applied after the flowers have
faded promotes flowering the next year. You have till New Year to