Tulips are spring's ultimate ornamental flower. Delicate, whimsical and a touch haughty, they are the heroes of the garden, coming into bloom early on, when most herbaceous plants are barely visible above the soil. Plant a tulip, and early on in the season, your garden will be vibrant with color and charm.
Turkish for turban, the tulip has a long and eccentric history. The colorful, cup-shaped flowers are native to Asia and North Africa. They were a favorite of the Turkish sultans, who organized tulip festivals and honored growers of new varieties.
The tulip was first smuggled out of Turkey and introduced to Holland in the mid-1500s. Between 1634 and 1637 "tulipmania," a speculative fever, seized Holland. Fantastic sums were paid for a single bulb--sometimes as high as $1,500 each--and there is record of a man in England who was sent to prison for mistakenly eating a tulip bulb instead of what he thought was an onion. The market finally crashed, sweeping great fortunes in its wake.
The tulip, however, became one of Europe's most prized garden denizens.
There are literally hundreds of types and varieties of tulips; there are 90 different shades of purple tulips alone.
Cut tulips are available commercially from autumn onwards, but early forced types often have a severly limited color range and an anemic quality. As their true season approaches, the choices increase, double-flowered tulips appear, and the blooms are much more generous and voluptuous.
In the past, florists wired tulip stems to control their shape. To make your own arrangement at home, wrap the flowers, heads and all, tightly in newspaper, and soak them overnight in deep water to stiffen the stems. There are special tulip vases with holes along the top, one for each flower, or narrow, fan-shaped vases that make arranging the flowers easier.
Work with the character of the tulip, rather than against it, allowing the stems to twist and curve at will. Leaving tulips well-past their "prime" will result in artful shapes and arrangements. Re-cut the stems often to preserve the flower.
Tulips grow best in full sun or very light shade. Plant them 4 to 8 inches deep, depending on the size of the bulbs, and space them 3 to 6 inches apart. You can choose either species tulips--the ones that grow naturally in Asia Minor and Europe--or hybrid tulips.
Most tulips require a long, sustained cooling period--at least 15 weeks--to establish an expansive root system and produce spectacular blossoms. Specially prepared, pre-cooled early tulips are available that require only two weeks of cool darkness before being brought into the light.
Place a pot of tulip bulbs in a refrigerator at about 40 degrees, then transfer it in a warm place and wait for the blooms.
To force tulips in containers and pots, plant them close together so that the bulbs will gain strength from each other.
Bulbs are classified by the date of their bloom.
The latest classification list, updated in 1987, is as follows:
Earlies--single early and double early: Some good early tulips are ibis (rose); apricot beauty (peach); Diana (white), Van der Neer (purple); Jenny (cyclamen pink) and Prince Carnival (yellow and red mix).
Many people dislike early doubles as they often don't "look" like tulips. But there are some beautiful varieties, such as baby doll (yellow); scarlet cardinal (scarlet red); Schoonoold (white); Electra (red and white mix) and orange Nassau (Deep red-orange).
Mid-season--triumph and Darwin hybrid: The most popular category of mid-season tulips are the Darwin hybrids, which are spectacular and numerous in choice. The Oxford (red); big chief (rose); jewel of spring (yellow); daydream (orange-yellow); my lady (salmon); ivory Floradale (cream-white) and pink impression (deep rose) are a small sampling of types available.
The triumph tulips were introduced after World War I and are also quite popular. It is in the violet purple range of colors that these tulips are so prized. The blue orchid (purple violet) is beautiful, as are Attila (light purple violet); purple queen (brilliant Tyrian purple); purple marvel (lilac purple); Prince Charles (purple violet); Arabian mystery (deep purple edged in white) and dreaming maid (pink-purple edged in cream).
Lates: single late; lily-flowered; fringed; Viridiflora; Rembrandt; Parrot; double late (peony flowered).
Most late tulips are of the single variety. The best ones are Mirella (buff rose with raspberry base); Demeter (rich plum) and the Bishop (violet). Late tulips singles have the "black" tulip; three of the finer ones are La Tulipe Noire (deep purple black); queen of the night (deep velvet maroon) and black diamond (dark redish brown exterior and dark dahlia purple inside). Black beauty and black pearl are both classified as completely black.