|By William Scheick
“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 through.”
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 Texas.
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 red-throated stars.
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 center.
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 sweetness.”
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 (10-10-10).
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 www.tgpress.com
Southern Bulb Company
P.O. Box 7369
Tyler, TX 75711