Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Tulipa clusiana
I've read about tulips.  I've read extensively about tulips, from the excellent The Tulip by Anna Pavord to the enchanting Tulipomania of Mike Dash.  The former is a dry comprehensive history of the tulip, and the latter an engaging and very readable tale focusing on the boom and bust of the Dutch trade in tulips in the 1630's.  Neither of these books taught me very much, however, about actually growing tulips, nor have the multitude of texts available that focus on bulb gardening.  Writers that take up the topic of gardening with various bulbs all describe the same practices.  Prepare a nice bed.  Add a little bone meal to the base of the bed.  Toss the bulbs in the air so they'll land with random spacing and plant them where they lay, several bulb-lengths below the surface.  Water.  Let the foliage die back naturally to allow full nourishment of the growing bulb.  Oh, and if you're in an area where varmints like to remove them (squirrels, rodents, etc.) encase the bulbs in a wire cage during planting.

You either have to search deep or learn by experience to get the important information.  The most important tidbits to learn about tulips are first that  big, beautiful, Dutch tulips are annuals, not perennials, in most of the Continental US.  Accept it, face it, and just plan, if you must have tulips, for annual purchase of next year's flowers.   If you search for them, there are species tulips out there who actually return more reliably.  Oh, and most importantly, if you really add bone meal to the bottom of the planting bed, every dog in the neighborhood will think your bed has become the resting place for their last hidden bone and will then compete in a contest to see who can dig up the most bulbs.  I once planted 50 nice bright red Darwin tulips in a raised bed, only to see every one of them excavated overnight by a neighbor's hunting dogs.  The resident deer were very appreciative of the dogs' efforts and added to the carnage by partially consuming or damaging most of the bulbs before I could replant them.  It seems that deer can't eat a whole tulip bulb, but they like to taste each one before moving on.

I've tried to satisfy the desires of the loving Mrs. ProfessorRoush in this regard, She Who Adores Tulips, but, like many other critical spousal tasks, I've failed again and again.  Last year's patch of 75 tulips yielded but a single sad tulip this year, its singular beauty not quite the same as the previous mass effect.  Actually about 6 tulips put up some foliage, but 5 were plucked out of the ground or chewed off at ground level by deer before flowering.  Kansas itself conspires to defeat my tulipiflorious efforts as well, because the Spring winds often tear an unprotected tulip to shreds before it can open. The Wicked Witch of the West is still writing in the sky, but it's not "Surrender, Dorothy", it is "Surrender, Tulips."

After many years however, I can recommend a singular exception to the wanton, unsustainable annual tulip consumption.  I've tried a number of species type tulips, and I still have hopes for some surviving stragglers of Tulipa hageri 'Little Beauty', but Tulipa clusiana seems to be the survivor for Kansas.  About eight years back, I obtained Tulipa clusiana 'chrysantha' through a mail-order whim and the small clump has expanded and thrived unaided.  Tulipa clusiana, also known as the "Lady Tulip" or "Persian Tulip" or "Candlestick Tulip" is a low-growing species tulip native to areas of the Middle East, although some references suggest that it is really native to Spain.  Regardless of origin, it seems to be unique in enjoying the dry Kansas summers.  I essentially forget they even exist each year until they bloom again, but they manage quite well on their own. The creamy butter yellow centers of this variety are surrounded by soft red exteriors that form long narrow buds. Only 8-10 inches high, these beauties don't scream for attention, but I appreciate their quiet addition to the garden more every year. Other, brighter varieties are available, from bright yellow 'Tubergen's Gem' to red-striped 'Candy Cane', but I find the native species sufficient to keep the spousal demands for tulips within reason. 

 It helps to have a spouse who is willing to compromise and accept a daffodil-growing spouse as a poor substitute for a real (Tulip-capable) gardener. 

1 comment:

  1. Yeah I followed the directions also. Planted 125 "Best Red" from a wholesale bulb company. Bone meal, correct depth blah blah blah. However, they suggested to plant deeper than normal so that the bulbs wouldn't divide into "smaller" bulb-lets and return the following seasons. You know the rest of the story. Three returned this year with no blooms. lol!


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