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Species Tulips

Martha Stewart Living, April 2006

There are tulips, and there are tulips. Of course there are the hybrids we all know and love, with their stately stems and big, colorful flowers -- a bit showy perhaps -- anchoring the spring display. But then there are special tulips, the ones that remain the way nature intended them to be. They are less obvious and less familiar but no less pleasing. These species tulips, also called botanical tulips, are the parents of the spectacular hybrids that drove the seventeenth-century Dutch frenzy -- what was then termed tulipomania -- for buying single bulbs at enormous sums.

You might not even recognize the pinky-violet flowers of a Tulipa humilis or the soft-yellow flowers of a T.urumiensis. Measuring only four or five inches tall, with diminutive blossoms that are hardly bold (yet fully ready to celebrate spring), can these really be tulips? They are, and they might be the start of your own tulipomania -- the desire to possess more and more of the smaller, simpler, infinitely gentler, and more refined species tulips. These are the treasures, often wonderfully fragrant and easier to coax into returning year after year, that will change your perception of tulips.

About a hundred species of botanical tulips grow wild across the mountains of Central Asia, particularly in an area spanning from Turkey to Afghanistan. In the isolated mountain valleys and peaks of these windswept parts, many species emerged. It is said that botanical tulips do well where goats revel but cattle stay away. True or not, they also, happily, are able to thrive in much of the United States. These dainty flowers grow well so long as winter is neither too warm nor too wet; they're recommended for USDA Zones 4 to 7.

Myriad variations in appearance, color, and structure exist among species tulips, and many interesting ones are available to the home gardener who makes the effort to seek them out. While most local nurseries offer mainly those familiar standard Dutch hybrids, species tulips can be bought from bulb specialists through the Internet and catalogs and delivered to you with ease. The phrase "Well, they don't take much space" is another justification to try just a couple more every year -- if you must have a mania, this is a pretty good one to have.

Species tulips last only a handful of weeks from early April to early May, depending on the tulip and on where you live. But somehow their fleetingness at this time of year feels just right. Species tulips are a classic choice to tuck into rock gardens. They're also beautiful when planted in casual drifts (they seem to look unnatural in fussy, geometric shapes). To extend the delight of species tulips, plant groups composed of early and late bloomers; for each swath use at least 25 of the larger bulbs or 50 of the smaller. Double that is even better.

If you give them a home they like, species tulips succeed and can perennialize -- they return spring after spring. In fact, they do so in a wider variety of garden soils than their hybrid relatives. The bulbs for species tulips should be planted in autumn, no more than three to four inches apart, at a depth that's three to four times the height of the bulb. To thrive, they need full sun and good drainage, and a baking-hot, dry summer. If you can, avoid siting them in areas where you already have plants that need frequent summer watering. Impossible? Don't worry. Plant a few bulbs each in some six-to eight-inch-diameter plastic pots (choose ones with lots of drainage holes). Cover the pots with half-inch wire screening, which will frustrate the mice and voles that so love tulip bulbs. Plant the pots, and when the foliage dies back, dig the pots up and lay them on their sides. Leave them to dry all summer, and then replant in fall. During winter they need a cold period to rest.

All of that won't seem like much work after you spend a few spring weeks with T. tarda, with its bright-yellow interior and green-bronze exterior, or T. clusiana, which is relatively tall, at 14 inches. It has cheerful red and white peppermint-stick stripes.

Even in warmer areas, such as Zones 7, 8, and 9, where mild winters make some bulbs difficult to grow, there are botanical tulips that do well. Look in particular for T. clusiana 'Cynthia' (also called -- with the rest of this species -- lady tulip) and T. turkestanica (which is sunset- hued and a great colonizer). Specialty suppliers can recommend other varieties. In warmer parts of the United States (Zones 8 to 10), if your soil does not stay below 50 degrees for several weeks at any time during the year, try digging up the bulbs after the foliage dies back in late spring and store them in a dry, quite cool place. Then replant them in November or early December in a spot with only morning or partial sun.

After hundreds of years of breeding and cultivating, we have tulip hybrids so spectacular that they may have blinded us to the quieter elegance of species tulips. But species tulips are, after all, where all tulips got their start, and in many ways, they've never been improved upon.