Tulips or Not Tulips: That is the Question

– Posted in: Plant info, Recommended Links

Tulips I grew in 1989
Every fall gardeners buy tulips, and every spring I read blog posts complaining about tulips. Part of the problem, I think, is that many people assume that since they are sold at the same time as daffodils and bloom about the same time, that they behave the same in the garden. But they actually don’t like the same cultural conditions.
Rob Proctor, in Naturalizing Bulbs, states

. . . the plains of Colorado differ little from the steppes and high plains of east-central Asia. Most tulips trace their ancestry to this region. Whether they naturalize [that is, come back and bloom every year] or not depends on the hybrid itself and whether conditions are horrible enough for it. By that, I mean cold in winter, moist in spring, and hot and dry in summer.

Hot and dry in the summer. Let me ask you: do you water your lawn or your garden in the summer? By any chance, are those the same places where you’ve got tulips planted? Daffodils will take that without a qualm, but not many tulips consider it the best conditions for forming new flowers in their bulbs. Some will even rot, which is why the more responsible bulb catalogs will tell you that tulips need good drainage.One thing I really like about The Random House Book of Bulbs is they have photos of the plants growing in their native haunts. Proctor isn’t kidding when he says tulips like it tough. The pictures of species tulips growing in the Tien Shan mountains or the Chimgan valley invariably show a rocky landscape with gritty soil. In some cases it looks more like straight gravel with a bit of organic matter decaying on top. A far cry from the deeply dug, generously amended garden beds we like to pamper our favorite flowers with. While the hybridized tulips probably don’t like it so lean, having evolved in the nursery beds of Holland, they still like it hot and dry in summer. I understand in England, where hot and dry is hard to come by, they dig up their tulips after the foliage dies back, and replant them in the fall.

Too much moisture won’t necessarily kill your tulips outright. Quite possibly they will merely fail to flower, or develop some viral or fungal infection. Ever have tulip leaves emerge looking twisted or otherwise malformed? They’re infected, and good luck getting them to bloom again. No wonder so many public gardens treat them as annuals. Gardeners who value their time often do, too.

Okay, that explains why tulips fail to rebloom. But what if you plant tulips in the fall, and they never show up at all. The most likely cause? They were eaten. Rodents of all kinds like tulip bulbs, including voles, which tunnel underneath the ground, and who you may never see.

You may think I’m trying to discourage you from planting tulips, but I’m not. I just want you to buy them, and plant them, with your eyes open. All the problems I’ve mentioned can be overcome with proper siting, soil preparation, and in the case of rodents, defensive measures. Myself, being blessed with poorly draining soil and an overabundance of rodents (ah, country life!), I have not been especially motivated to plant tulips. Every spring, there comes a certain time when the last of the daffodils have bloomed and the great June spectacular has yet to start, that I think, “You know, I really should have more tulips.” But when I get the fall bulb catalogues and look at the prices, and think about replanting tulips, at those prices, every year–well, I manage to talk myself out of it.

If anyone could talk me into growing tulips, it would be Michael King. His book Gardening with Tulips, has more and better ideas about incorporating tulips into a garden than any other book on the subject that I’ve read. He really knows how to combine the early emerging foliage of many perennials, including grasses, with various types and colors of tulips. The results are a huge improvement over Keukenhof rivers of color or pathetic dots between the shrubbery.

So you don’t need Michael King to persuade you: you adore tulips, and two hundred bucks a year, plus the labor of planting them, is not too much to spend for such glorious return. At least get the most bang for your buck and order them from Van Engelen‘s. Michele‘s ‘Purple Prince’ is $30/100; ‘Orange Princess’, $50/100–a savings of $18 over Brent and Becky’s right there. Elizabeth‘s ‘Perestroika’ is $38/100, and ‘Blushing Lady’ is $35/100–a savings of $23. Of course, the catch is, Van Engelen’s only sells in large quantities. Fifty is the smallest quantity of tulips they sell, and only some varieties are sold that way; most are sold only in hundreds.

Now both of these women are already aware of tulips’ pitfalls, and willingly embrace them as the price you pay for beauty. Perhaps you are, too. In that case, I haven’t told you anything you don’t already know. But if tulips cause you to pull your hair out every spring, maybe it’s time to step back and evaluate your expectations. It may be that, once you think of them as annuals, you’ll agree with Michele and Elizabeth that they’re worth the price. Or not.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

Kathy Purdy October 20, 2006, 8:11 pm

Alice, thank you for stopping by. It’s always nice to hear from someone new.

Alice Hartsock October 19, 2006, 9:59 pm

I am glad to have read about tulips, because I have not had good luck with them continuing to come back each year. Well, now I guess I know why. I treated them too good! Thanks for the information.

Nancy October 16, 2006, 8:16 am

I live in zone #5 and I just bought 30 rainbow tulip bulbs yesterday. We are recovering from a freck snow storm and are suppose to have rain all week long should I plant my tulips now or waite a week or so?

Jenn October 12, 2006, 8:26 pm


I’m experimenting with species or near-species bulbs – the hybrids you must certainly deadhead to force them to send their energy to their daughter bulb. The plants that are closer to their wild forms are made of tougher stuff.

All of this is great if it works. I don’t grow the tulips expecting them to return, so every year they do is a bonus!

Rosemarie October 12, 2006, 7:35 pm

I have read that you absolutely must cut off the tulips before they form seed pods, that this drains them of energy. Of course, I can’t bear to cut them while they still look good. And let’s face it, I never dead head, and don’t weed near enough, and my garden just looks messy, not lush!

Jenn October 10, 2006, 3:19 pm

I believe they would – they produce a lot of seeds, as I noticed this year, the first I left them alone.

I don’t know if they are being eaten from below. I’ve not noticed any rodent activity or subsiding soil, but it may well be possible.

What I think tho, is that the parent bulbs fade out over time, and the young from seed take their place.

The lily flowered ones are seed increases, they pop up some distance away from the parent plant.

Kathy Purdy October 10, 2006, 3:04 pm

That’s interesting, Jenn. Some plants, like Shasta daisies, peter out if you don’t deadhead them. But I guess you’re saying that the turkestanica would increase by seed if you didn’t deadhead them?

Jenn October 10, 2006, 1:59 pm

I have a lily-flowered tulip of the brightest white that I don’t know where it come from. I suspect my mom bought it as a grocery flower to brighten her kitchen and I planted it up. It’s surprizingly tough, and is even spreading a bit.

I also have some of the batalinii (I suspect it’s Bronze Charm) that increase each year for me.

I have a bad habit of deadheading my turkestanica, and subsequently each year the clump is slimmer and slimmer…

I suspect if I could curb my compulsions of deadheading and weeding seedlings out JUST A LITTLE, my garden would be a lot lusher. Sigh.

Any of the fancy tulips I may plant, I look at as short lived perennials at best. If I get more than one year out of them, I am happy. Needless to say, there are few of the big showies in my garden.