Monday, February 4, 2013

Botanical tulips--color balm for winter doldrums

Tulipa humilis  'Alba Coerulea Oculata'
I've occasionally wondered what an"unbotanical" tulip might be (glass? plastic?--yes, I know--those gorgeous Dutch hybrids that ordinary people plant.) Come to think of it, I've planted my fair share of Darwin, Trumph, Cottage and Lily flowered tulips--so I must own a dash of the drab...but drabness is the issue right now. I think it's more like five thousand shades of gray, brown, drab and glum--except of course for our crystalline blue skies and puffy clouds (how can people survive in cloudy climates? Oh yeah--they have green!). And there are the splendiferous dawns--and Alpenglow almost every day--which is wickedly hard to photograph despite my house's delightful perch. But oh yes, tulips. There is probably some sanctimonious antidisestablishmentarian who hates tulips--screw 'em. Every kid I know and anyone with a pure heart and any sense of decency dotes on tulips. And the species combine the shimmering, almost unreal gloss and vivid hues with grace and elegance. Who can look at the albino form of humilis above and not see inside that blossom all the promise of spring? Which is why I'm posting this as winter lurches every so slowly towards the light!
Tulipa greigii at Kendrick Lake
And they're toughies! Our native Rocky Mountain bulbs are sensible and rarely bloom before May, but the tulips most come from more predictable climes. Even so, I find that they get snowed on two or three times most springs, and it doesn't seem to faze them. They do have one failing: they are attractive to deer, rabbits and voles. Fortunately, I do not have the last on the list, but over the last few years I have begun to have both deer and rabbits in my garden. I confess guiltily that I am rather charmed by my bunnies and bambis--they have munched a few of my tulips too: this year I plan to put some chickenwire around and perhaps try some repellant. I shall hang a sign out saying "Mr. Fox--get your butt back here, buster!" (we had resident foxes for years--and I miss them)...

Tulipa saxatilis...or is it baker?
 I have come to admire and respect and just plain love the Dutch more every year. I wish I could do some sort of innoculation and inject Dutchishness in the brains of my countrymen (not all--just the ones I don't approve of)...because I love everything about the Dutch: their enormous efficiency, their cleanliness, industry, their glorious and mad liberality of spirit (what other country celebrates diversity with such pizazz?)...And who but the Dutch would ever think to dam the sea in order to grow millions--heck! BILLIONS of Mediterranean bulbs on the sea bed? Crazy! They're cranking out this outrageous gem--with its melting pink and yellow combo--which is endemic to rocky spots in Crete, my ancestral isle.

Tulipa bakeri (or is it saxatilis) in Watersmart Garden, DBG
Dan Johnson somehow intuited the perfect spot to grow this tulip in Watersmart Garden, where it has naturalized by runners to make a wonderful patch. It has persisted here for a decade or more--I can't say how anxiously I watch this every year (it pops its foliage up in winter)...will I ever have the chance to go to Crete in Spring when this is blooming and track down the native tulips of my ancestral home? Time is not infinite, alas. Leastways not for humans...

Tulipa orphanidea
Funny how tulips come in pairs: bakeri and saxatilis are so similar..and then there's T.hageri and orphanidea: both are Greek, both are burnt orange (although one or the other also grows in Turkey--where once most everyone spoke Greek you know).  It's interesting the Dutch have had such luck taming the Mediterranean species--while many of the Central Asian sorts have yet to be licked:  Tulipa regelii is probably my Holy Grail of the genus. Henrik is probably weeding it out at Gothenburg.

Tulipa vvedenskyi in the embrace of Whipple's cactus
 One elegant solution to deer repellent may be to plant tulips under Cylindropuntia whipplei as they have done at Kendrick Lake. Needless to say--this shows why tulips do so well in Colorado: they take much the same culture as our cacti! It has been incredibly dry this winter--but I am pretty confident our tulips will bloom magnificently come March and April (when most species do their thing). Tulipa vvedenskyi is something of the Dolly Parton of the genus--if you know what I mean (a tad top heavy is all!) and flamboyant as all get out...I probably have fifty transparencies of this (some of them stunning) I must scan...It merits its own blogification.

Tulipa clusiana cultivar
 Now lest you think this blog is just all fluff--I shall give you a very good pointer: don't plant straight Tulipa clusiana at home. Every time I've planted the little creep it does just that---creeps, suckers and runs everywhere producing masses of not very wonderful foliage and few blooms. There are a number of charming hybrids, like this one (Cynthia?) that actually will bloom and not take over the joint. Of course, it's so beautiful, no one will listen! You'll be sorry!

Tulipa sprengeri
I end with the one I shall never do without. You can't really buy this Turkish delight (unless one of the Latvians is selling it for 80 Euros). It is apparently extinct in the wild. But many decades ago John Worman--who co-founded our Rocky Mountain Chapter of NARGS with me and Paul way back in 1976 (my how that date is starting to get a bit faint and dusty with time!) dropped by to visit me at Denver Botanic Gardens. He brought an envelope full of seed of this impossibly choice plant and told me "Panayoti--just toss the seed around the garden--it will come up"--which (being a clever and obedient fellow I did). It probably only took three or four years, but the seedlings began to bloom and the rest is history. Visit the Rock Alpine Garden (or my current home garden where some have mysteriously appeared as well!) in late May and early June and you will see this last of tulips to bloom fulminating with that impossibly bright Chinese (or is it Sealing Wax) vermilion. Thank you, John--and bless your soul in rock garden Heaven!


  1. T. regeliana? I've only ever heard of T. regelii from Uzbekistan, which I really, really want.

    In any case, this post led me to the awesome website of the french wild tulip association,, which is awesome. So thanks for fanning our wild tulip passions!

  2. I stand corrected: and better yet, I corrected my egregious and obnoxious mistake. Thank you, Susan! Glad to know I have company in regelian misery...and I shall check out that French association.

    1. The only thing worse than unrequited T. regelii covetousness is my longing for T. borszczowii.

  3. Hello
    Your Tulipa humilis 'Albomaculata caerulea' look very much like my Tulipa humilis 'Alba Coerulea Oculata' - you can see it here:

    Perhaps it is the same?

  4. Ruksans offers Tulipa regelii for 80 Euros a bulb. Plant it in drifts of a hundred, or maybe two.

  5. It's the same Karsten
    just a name change
    and maybe it will change again
    it was a single found
    so it is a clone and need a


  6. Thanks, Roland: Karsten is probably right. I garbled it. I shall change it to the proper name right away,


    (can't trust my memory any more...alas!)

  7. ah tulips. i adore them.


    they offer the plantsman the perfect Mae West line...

    "come in to my garden so our tulips can meet"


  8. Good old Mae West--that's a new one for me. But potentially useful! Thanks, India, for the tip! I too giggled.


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