“The tulip has qualities that make for madness,”
Richardson Wright reminded readers of his Practical Book
of Outdoor Flowers (1924). He was recalling how our
fascination with tulips began in 16th-century Europe and
eventually exploded into tulipmania during the 17th
century. Then tulips figured centrally in the making and
the breaking of fortunes. At one point a bunch of bulbs,
as valuable as gems but far more perishable, sold for
today’s equivalent of 3.5 million dollars.
And all that life-and-death fuss was not even over
tulips similar to the tame elegant hybrids most commonly
cultivated today. At the center of attention during the
craze were wildly diverse and unpredictable species
tulips imported from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
For those obsessed by species tulips at that time, the
more variegated a flower, the more it was prized as
beautiful and valuable. “The whole shaky edifice of
tulipmania,” Anna Pavord has explained in The Tulip: The
Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad (1999), “had
been built on the tulip’s sudden ability to burst into
stripes and multi-coloured patterns.” Unfortunately, as
Pavord also observed, “out of a batch of a hundred
tulips only one or two would turn their coats each year
and emerge the following season with highly desirable
‘feathered’ or ‘flamed’ flowers.”
Oddly, this ideal of striped and patterned beauty was
not based on botanic perfection. Instead, these floral
“designs,” as unique as fingerprints, derived from a
deforming, aphid-assisted virus — a virus that actually
compromised the capacity of the infected plant to
produce offsets (base-buds). “The virus works,”
according to Pavord, “by partly suppressing the laid-on
colour of a tulip, its anthocyanin, leaving the
underlying colour, always white or yellow, to show
Today’s tulips are gorgeous, and they will always be
show-stealers. But as Austin resident Scott Ogden has
aptly noted in Garden Bulbs for the South (2007), “very
few Southern gardeners give these blooms a second
thought” other than as “annually renewed displays.” The
reason is simple: to perform as perennials, most of
today’s tulips need more winter coldness and less summer
heat than are typical of the South.
But such limitations do not apply to several of the wild
ancestors of today’s hybrid tulips. These wild species
tulips come from places with warm, dry summers and can
perform as small-flower perennials in Texas. They are
not easy to find commercially, though, because
market-savvy hybridizers cater to gardeners preferring
ornamentals with ever larger and flashier flowers.
But if species tulips are considered somewhat less
elegant than their cultivated descendents, they possess
a charm of their own, especially in containers or rock
gardens. And several of them actually naturalize in
The cute lady tulip (T. clusiana) tops my list of
naturalizing species tulips for Texas. It forms small
clumps, less than a foot tall, but its numerous flowers
open to about 4 inches wide. The buds look like
exquisite pink candlesticks. Then, as they begin to
open, the flowers become white chalices striped with
wine-hued tepals (a flower-part that is neither petal
nor modified leaf). Finally the blooms transform into
During early-spring at The Natural Gardener in Austin,
it’s hard to overlook T. clusiana var. chrysantha, a
yellow-flowered and shorter variety of the lady tulip.
Like other species tulips, this variety offers different
color-effects when closed and open. Its gorgeous small
buds are striped by bright red tepals, but when fully
open its flowers look like a burst of sunlight.
The ‘Tubergen’s Gem’ lady-tulip variety offers rich
butter-hued floral interiors, whereas 6-inch ‘Cynthia’
(a cross between T. clusiana and its chrysantha variety)
celebrates spring with gorgeous chiffon-yellow flowers
edged with chartreuse.
‘Tinka’ is a scarlet-cream version, while the
rose-and-white flowers of ‘Lady Jane’ display a striking
variation on the lady-tulip theme.
‘Lady Jane’ and ‘Tinka’ are tougher than their delicate
appearance might suggest. Heirloom bulb hunter Chris
Wiesinger, who runs the Southern Bulb Company in Golden,
has reported that both of these cultivars “have come
back for [him] vigorously for the last three years.” He
also has found old plantings of ‘Lady Jane’ in towns
south of Dallas.
Second on my list is the fire tulip (T. praecox), also
sometimes called Texas tulip. A naturalized heirloom
plant in the South, it offers unscented but particularly
showy flowers — reddish-orange blooms with
yellow-bordered black centers. Flowering as early as
mid-March, it easily withstands humid summers and
thrives in clay soils, even when only slightly amended.
“Found in abandoned lots in small-town Texas, in some of
the worst gardening soils of the South, they truly
thrive on neglect,” Chris Wiesinger has reported.
Wiesinger has created a special Web site devoted to the
fire tulip (www.texastulip.com).
OTHER SPECIES TULIPS
The scented Cretan tulip (T. saxatilis) is another
possibility for Texas poor soils, hot summers and mild
winters. Unfortunately, this tulip often produces “only
blind, undersized bulbs,” Ogden has warned; so it “has a
reputation for shy flowering.” However, ‘Lilac Wonder’
is a better-behaved, multi-flowering cultivar of this
tulip, often listed (at John Scheepers and McClure &
Zimmerman, for example) as T. bakeri. When fully open,
its rose-lavender flowers flash an intense sun-yellow
Another mild-winter possibility is the Florentine tulip
(T. sylvestris), which Thomas Jefferson grew at
Monticello and which has naturalized in the American
Southeast. In Colour in My Garden (1918), Louise B.
Wilder (whose decades-long gardening advice once exerted
an enormous influence in America) particularly prized
these little, early-blooming, almond-shaped and fragrant
yellow tulips, “so full of grace and gracious
For orangey flowers there’s the Greek tulip (T. orphanidea), which withstands mild winters but insists
on rich soil with excellent drainage. Its ‘Flava’
cultivar bears yellow blooms flared by red tepals.
SPECIES TULIP SPECIFICS
Fire tulips do well in clay soil somewhat amended with
crushed shell, expanded shale or decomposed granite.
Like the other species tulips mentioned here, they
require excellent drainage. Any soil that drains and
dries quickly after watering will provide a suitable
medium for species tulips.
These plants require plenty of sunlight, too. Even so,
all-day exposure during our punishing summers can be too
much for them. In Texas, full morning exposure is ample.
As with the better-known Dutch hybrids, species tulip
bulbs should be planted during late autumn in Texas and
perhaps covered with a lightly mulched mesh screen to
prevent theft by rodents. Spent flowers can be pinched
off to foster reblooming, and in late summer the plants
can be fed with a basic post-bloom fertilizer
During the day, species-tulip flowers can (like
sunflowers) incline from east to west. Many also
partially close at night. As we observed about the lady
tulip, this silent drama during blooming brings
variation in floral shape and hue — from colorful tepal-striped
chalices in early morning to vividly open-throated
flowers in the afternoon.
Scott Ogden. Garden Bulbs for the South: Second Edition. Timber Press, 2007. 396 pp. $34.95. Available from TG Press 1-800-727-9020 or