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In Praise of Tulips

Here is the full text of the article published in Professional Horticulture, May 2016

Mass planting of tulips at Keukenhof Gardens, Netherlands

Tulips are one of the most varied and useful plants for the spring and early summer season. They are reasonably cheap, easily available, come in varied range of colours, heights, flowering times and and flower forms. To add to these charms many are fragrant, with some having patterned foliage.

Tulips have a rich and intriguing history in cultivation. They derive from breeding plants chosen from the scores of original species originating in various mountainous regions of Mediterranean lands such as Spain and Greece and across North Africa and the Middle East, and on to India and China. The first recordings of their cultivation seem to date from the 10th Century in Persia, and were a favourite plant of the Ottoman culture.

The structure of a single-flowered tulip

The tulip was considered in the Middle East to be a holy plant as in Arabic the word is similar to Allah and the height of the Ottoman empire in Europe is known as the Tulip Period. They were introduced into Europe in cultivation around the 1550s and were made popular by Carolus Clusius from the 1570s planting them in the Vienna and Leiden Botanic Gardens.

By the 1630s the tulip was so popular that individual bulbs were being sold for vast fortunes in a speculative fever for unusual-patterned ‘break’ cultivars leading to a notorious financial crash.

Tulipa praestans 'Fuselier'

Tulips are bred from seed of cross-pollinated hybrids and selected cultivars are named and bulked up as bulbs. Although a perennial plant ornamental cultivars are usually treated as annuals and replanted each year to ensure reliability of display. The Netherlands is the world’s largest grower of tulip bulbs with over a billion bulbs representing 80% of the world’s production on nearly 10,000 hectares of land, many grown for cut flowers. In the UK tulip production is concentrated in the Eastern England, particularly in the Spalding area Lincolnshire

Tulips are a complex genus, with fifteen internationally-recognised divisions based on morphology, but are more easily classified as early, mid-season or late-flowering. They are grown for cut flowers, for interplanting in mixed borders, naturalising, or more usually as main or interplanted features in bedding schemes. Because most tulips are single flowered they are attractive to pollinating insects and are a useful source of early season nectar and pollen.

Tulips in a carpet-style bed at Keukenhof Gardens, Netherlands
Tulipa 'White Triumphator'  planted en masse

Designing spring bedding schemes where tulips are included is a refined art which requires in-depth understanding of cultivar growth habits, colour combinations and flowering times to get the best displays. It is no easy task to get the colour co-ordination, heights and flowering times to harmonise. Each year the Keukenhof Gardens in Holland demonstrate planting of tulips en masse in stylish and inventive colour groupings with other tulips or bulbs, and is used by plantspeople from all over world to check out new varieties and combinations.

Display at Keukenhof Gardens

Unfortunately many local authorities have been forced to reduce spring displays, with planting of tulips particularly being cut back, so the opportunity to see these splendid plants to full effect is diminishing. They are however still used in many gardens to add colour to herbaceous, naturalistic and/or mixed borders to provide early season colour in informal planting style. The tulip is an amazing genus which deserves wider use and if used creatively can contribute hugely to the early garden season in the way that the newer dahlias have brightened up the late summer gardens

Spring bedding scheme with tulips and muscari

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