We’re just on the cusp of peak Tulip Time. The world would be a dull place if we all agreed on everything, but these spring bulbs seem to have brought out extremes of opinions with us 3 Growbags. Caroline goes for short and garish, Elaine for flamboyant extroverts whilst I (Laura – the sane sister) try to bring some order out of the chaos.
You see there are no less than 15 different Groups of tulips, each with different characteristics and floral phenology (that’s their flowering period Caroline): Single Early, Double Early, Triumph, Darwin Hybrid, Single Late, Lily-flowered, Fringed, Viridiflora, Rembrandt, Parrot, Double Late, Kaufmanniana, Fosteriana, Griegii and Botanical Tulips.
At the moment we are experiencing those that flower in the first wave and I am in total agreement with Sarah Raven that the best of the Early Single Group is one called ’Cairo’, which has been flowering in pots for me for several weeks, taking everything the weather can throw at it.
Also flowering now are some of the Botanical Group of species tulips, I had a lovely walk around Louise’s garden this afternoon and it was awash with charming clumps of these plucky little plants which actually increase over time.
It’s one of this Botanical Group, Tulipa whittallii, that tulip doyenne Anna Pavord claims to be her all-time favourite tulip and I think it’s mine too.
In terms of a mid-season tulip I think you can’t really beat the classy Triumph tulip ‘Negrita‘ which can be fitted seamlessly into so many different planting situations and is naturally quite perennial.
In terms of a tulip that has given me the most satisfaction to grow it would have to be the rare shade-loving Tulipa sprengeri – the very latest tulip to flower and another of the perennial Botanical Group. Its expensive to buy so I had several attempts to grow it from seed – but eventually had to resort to buying three pots of it in flower at a Chelsea Flower Show sell off at a cost that made me feel a little like a collector from the 19th Century Tulip Mania era.
Can there be a more gloriously varied genus than that of tulips!
Almost every colour under the sun, almost every shape, and a zillion different ways of using them. Single bulbs were exchanged for fortunes back in the seventeenth century, and that was because a disease had caused the colours of the flowers to break up in random ways that people loved – talk about an ill wind!
If tulips are the restrained elegant varieties, then I prefer to see them in a medley of other spring plants, not in colour blocks. They’re better when they loosen their corsets a tad (always a relief, I find).
But I have SUCH a penchant for the bonkers tulips and they deserve to be admired on their own: the flaming parrots, fringed ones, stripy viridiflora ones, Rembrandt ones with that broken mottled effect that they went so mad for, back in the day. T. ‘Estella Rijnfeld’ is an insane concoction of strawberry and white JUST like a luscious ice cream sundae. Wacky but wonderful – someone was having some fun when they thought up that one.
Another kind that I love are the ones in colours you just don’t often see elsewhere in the garden – smoky mauves, cherry streaked with lime, velvety purple-blacks. Look at this combo of ‘La Belle Epoque’ tulips with the opening shoots of a Pieris – I rest my case.
I know that the species tulips like Tulipa tarda the most reliably perennial, but I’ve kept my exotic beauties going for many years in pots, protected from the wretched squirrels by wire mesh, fed at the end of flowering and given a good long rest in summer.
Here in the Highlands ‘squat’ tends to be a good attribute in a plant and this is where ‘T. Red Riding Hood’ is a no-brainer at the checkout. Their tiger- striped leaves look good before there’s any hint of a flower at around 6 cms high they are EXACTLY what’s required for our climate.
Laura grows these too but being a snob she cuts the flower heads off and just uses the leaves to set off something a little classier like her Woodstock hyacinths.
However don’t be fooled by Laura’s cold, scientific exterior. Inside beats a heart full of girlish passion albeit only for various horticulturalists. It was one such crush that brought her up to Scotland to attend a talk at the Caley Horticultural Society – I genuinely can’t recall who it was now – but while Laura was sitting spell-bound by her hero/heroine, I was taking notes and consequently learned that the only reliable repeat flowering tulip is ‘Apeldoorn’. We need to know this given the price of bulbs now, and it certainly did prove to be the case before I moved and gave way to my addiction for:
‘Prinses Irene’ – could there be a more beautiful tulip? Your eyes have truly ascended to heaven when they rest on these and to tell you how long I’ve nursed my obsession – they were the ‘muse’ for our original The3Growbags artwork back in 2016.
P.S. Its Laura again and as both Elaine and Caroline are gallivanting around the Highlands at the moment, leaving me to do all the work, (although they did at least create a little video of their visit to Inverewe -link at the end) I thought I would throw in my opinion on their questionable tulip choices whilst their backs are turned.
First I must refer you to the time when Caroline tried to recreate a beautiful chequerboard design of black and white tulips she’d seen but didn’t do her research and bought white tulips from a different Group from the black ones. They flowered a month apart, so never were the two colours seen together 🙄.
Caroline’s dreadful ‘Red Riding Hood’ (it’s true – I do cut the flowers off, and I’m sure you can see why from her picture) belongs to the Greigii Group – which all have interesting leaves but ghastly flowers. (She’s also been been posting pictures of another frightful Greigii tulip ‘Calypso’ on Facebook this week)
But I am slightly more approving of her penchant for ‘Apeldoorn’ (btw the lecture was on the control of Phytophthera ramorum in rhododendrons give by the dishy manager of Logan Botanic Gardens). ‘Apeldoorn’ belongs to the Darwin Group of mid season flowerers which although fairly unremarkable as singles, are good for naturalising. Head Gardener at Arundel Castle, Martin Duncan uses them en masse on the ramparts during the magnificent Tulip Festival he masterminds each spring.
I’m going to gloss over Elaine’s casual dismissal of the lovely Botanical Group (!) and move onto to her choices amongst the later flowering types. I know from an interview I had with him last spring that Martin’s all- time favourite tulip is the Double Late ‘ La Belle Epoque’, from the same stable as the also very popular ’Angelique’, so I’ll let Elaine off this one (although they’re both a bit on the pink and frilly side for my taste). But honestly what a fright her ’Estella Rijnveld’ is and how is this psychedelic mutant of the late flowering Parrot Group ever going to sit comfortably in a spring planting scheme? Its just a show-off exhibitionist (which could be a manifestation of a horticultural version of the philosophy that dogs often look like their owners …?)
Do you agree with our tulip choices? Have we left out your favourite? We’d love to know.
- What a wonderful morning we spent at Inverewe Gardens on the far North-West coast of Scotland. Here’s a clip of our chat with Head Gardener Kevin Ball.
Louise has chosen a great iris as her plant of the moment which offers far more than just pretty flowers and is already playing an important role in the spring garden. Click on the box below to find out more.
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Our Sophie Conran herb pots are the perfect gift for a good friend, or indeed yourself, to keep your herbs nice and handy AND looking great this summer