Growbag Blog

What’s your taste in tulips?

three sisters sitting together

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.

Tulipa ‘Cairo’
Flowering in very early spring Tulipa ‘Cairo’ has to cope with all weather. Luckily it looks as pretty closed in the rain as it does open in the sunshine and flowers for weeks

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.

Tulipa bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’
Tulipa bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’ – one of the many self-sustaining clumps of Botanical Tulips in Louise’s garden

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.

Tulipa whittallii
Tulipa whittallii- echoing some of the colours of the Growbag favourite ‘Prinses Irene’ but in a more diminutive, exquisitely chiselled form.

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.

Tulipa ‘Negrita’
Tulipa ‘Negrita’ knows that there’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’, and just slips gracefully into spring planting schemes

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.

Tulipa sprengeri
Tulipa sprengeri, the latest tulip to flower and real quality – but at a price.


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). 

Tulips lighting up a spring border with their saturated colours

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.

You can only take modesty so far, sometimes you have to do this…Tulipa ‘Estella Rijnveld’

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.

Tulipa ‘La Belle Epoque’ sweetly echoing the colour of the Pieris shoots

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.

Short and sweet, T. Red Riding Hood has very enviable attributes…spectacular foliage and a fiery little flower.

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:

Tulip Apeldoorn – she’s a taller affair so personally I’d plant with caution in the Highlands but, rather like Claire Balding, very reliable and can be depended upon to appear every year.

‘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 🙄.

Tulip pot
Caroline, you have to do your homework – in this pot I have deliberately chosen a succession of tulips, but if you’re looking at creating a simultaneous contrast of colour, they must all flower at the same time – simples

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)

I always decapitate Red Riding Hood and use her body parts as a foil for these lovely Woodstock hyacinths

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.

Apeldoorn tulips at Arundel
Martin Duncan uses Apeldoorn tulips to great effect at the Arundel Castle Tulip Festival, an absolute Mecca for aficionados of this spring bulb

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.

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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By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

12 replies on “What’s your taste in tulips?”

Very informative, thanks ladies. I have managed to do EXACTLY the same as Caroline this year. Dreaming of a cool black and white checked look, I have planted mixed pots of Purissima (group Fosteriana, and all blooming already) along with Queen of the Night (Late single group, not yet any sign of whatsoever). Whoops!

Toby how lovely to get a comment from you! It’s your Auntie Caroline here and I’m so sorry to learn that this sort of cock-up seems to run in our genes. I know your mum will say you should listen to her rather than adopt my sort of ‘cross your fingers’ approach to gardening. Going by the photos of your garden though, this has been a minor slip up. Looking forward to seeing your successful chequer board next year! XX

Glad you enjoyed it, Marjorie! Elaine here. Yes, you CANNOT help smiling when you see bright tulips in the spring sunshine. I hope it’s as sunny with you as it is with us today.

Agreed so much about seeing a medley of tulips whatever the choice not blocks which are so unnatural! You always have some good tips and Ive recorded the names (not the garish ones!!) for the autumn order. Many thanks as always. I always have to top up on Angelique and have tried Sprengeri without much success and as you say expensive experiment even for 5!!

Hi Cleone, Elaine here. Sorry you don’t care for my mad tulip confections (!), but you’re right, Angelique is another real beauty – thank you for reminding us of her.

Lovely to hear about all your favourite tulip varieties. Not surprisingly, since there are hundreds to choose from, you did not include my favourite – Ivory Floradale. For me, she is the dream tulip – strong, healthy, reliable, robust. She threads her creamy/yellow large duck egg like heads through the borders underplanted with Narcissus Thalia. In the rain and wind, she still stands tall and when the sun comes out is a dream to behold. And furthermore back she comes, year after year.
This seems to have been a very long winter and here in Gloucestershire down to -10 so I truly appreciate the arrival of pretty much all tulips to cheer us on our way.
PS. Yippee – sunny today!

Hi Jane, Elaine here. I have not heard of Ivory Floradale, but it sounds wonderful- and when it comes to tulip bulb-buying time again this autumn, it’s going to be top of the list. Thank you for telling us about it. Hope you have a great spring-gardening season.

I was amused to hear about the black n white varieties being slow to do their thing.I gave up on mine last year but after last year’s weather found my whites-repotted in the autumn have been splendid this year!However none of the others have done well.Incidentally my favourites in this garden are the small species tulips especially turkestanica!Foolproof and they are tough!

Hi David, Elaine here. Gardening is such a fickle pastime, isn’t it! Hard work is no guarantee of success, and you are at the mercy of SO many variables. But perhaps that’s what keeps us all coming back for more. Well done on the success of your white tulips – I’m afraid I don’t often bother to re-pot the bulbs – they get a feed after they have flowered, then the pots get tucked away in a little corner and hauled out again with all fingers firmly crossed the following spring. I do agree you about the species tulips – aren’t they wonderful….and reliable – hurray! Happy gardening from us all.

I thoroughly enjoyed this article on tulips. I became addicted to tulips when my daughter sent me a photo from Schipol airport 4 years ago. My small garden is now a riot of colour in spring. I have many in pots which enables me to move them around and hide away when their time is over. I am especially delighted when they come back the following year like Purissima and Mariette. I like the early species tulips, fusilier, and the greigii Pinocchio and the contrasting shapes and colours of ballerina, merlot and the darwinii Impression series and Van Eijk series.
I could go on forever! I like to buy a few different varieties ach year even if they don’t return, the doubles for cutting. I’m missing some wine coloured tulips this spring but an opportunity to list my esrly brd order for May. Exciting!
C.Partridge Gwent

Hi Ceinwen, Elaine here. We are so glad you like our tulip article. You sound like someone who knows their tulips, so I think we can take it as a big compliment that you approve of our ramblings. Your garden sounds like a spring paradise! And I really like your story of how you came to love tulips in the first place – it is on such random occurrences like your daughter’s photo that so many of our gardening memories are based. The secretary at the school where I worked offered me a tiny cutting of an Abutilon more than twenty years ago when I hadn’t even heard of it. It grew, yielded lots more cuttings, and Abutilon is now one of the key plants in MY spring garden. I can think of her every time I admired its beautiful flowers. Enjoy all your lovely colourful tulips – and choosing more for next year’s show!

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