Tulips: Species and Hybrids for the Gardener

Tulips: Species and Hybrids for the Gardener

by Richard Wilford

Species tulips are becoming more widely available as gardeners wake up to their elegant shapes, vibrant-colored flowers, and suitability for growing in containers, raised beds, and rock gardens. Unlike garden hybrids, species tulips will flower each year without being replaced and will even colonize under the right conditions. Wilford's experience of growing…  See more details below


Species tulips are becoming more widely available as gardeners wake up to their elegant shapes, vibrant-colored flowers, and suitability for growing in containers, raised beds, and rock gardens. Unlike garden hybrids, species tulips will flower each year without being replaced and will even colonize under the right conditions. Wilford's experience of growing tulips at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, informs his excellent cultivation advice. Comprehensive descriptions of gardenworthy species and lesser-known rarities will appeal to tulip and bulb collectors, rock garden enthusiasts, and keen gardeners, inspiring closer investigation of this increasingly popular plant group.

Editorial Reviews

Seattle Times
"Tulips contains a wealth of useful information on how to select and grow these most popular of bulbs. It would make a great companion to use in conjunction with photo-laden bulb catalogs."

—Valerie Easton, Seattle Times, February 15, 2006

Midwest Book Review
"A beautifully illustrated, comprehensively knowledgeable, professionally informative, in-depth introduction to the many varying species of [this] delicate and powerful flower. ... Recommended to all readers with an interest in growing tulips and in need of the ultimate guide to their numerous variations."
Midwest Book Review, April 2006
Biology Digest
"Wilford's experience with tulips is vast, and his confident prose takes the reader by the hand and gently leads the curious into the wild world of this familiar perennial." Biology Digest, April 2006

Product Details

Timber Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.26(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.76(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

The best way to grow a healthy, thriving plant in cultivation is to find out where it comes from and try and mimic the conditions it grows under in the wild. Looking at a plant's geography can indicate how much light or shade the plant needs, the type of soil it prefers, the temperatures it can survive, and, most importantly, when to water and how much water to give. Tulips grow from a bulb, which immediately tells you that for part of the year they survive with little or no water. The formation of a bulb is an adaptation to a prolonged period of drought. Tulips grow in areas where summers are dry. How dry and for how long depends on the climate where they grow. Looking at a tulip's geography provides important information on its preferred environment.

Mapping out the natural range of a genus and highlighting where variation among the plants is most concentrated can provide clues to how the species have spread. A large number of distinct species in one area suggests that the genus has occupied this area for a long time. A great deal of variation, with many forms differing only slightly from one another, indicates an area where the species are still developing. This latter situation is especially true of the genus Tulipa, in which the species are still evolving and advancing, colonizing new areas, sometimes with the help of man.

Another reason for looking at geography is to find out where to see the plants growing wild. Pictures and books can be helpful and informative, but nothing matches finding a plant growing in its natural habitat. There you experience the conditions firsthand, the strength of the wind in your hair, the intensity of the sun on your back, and the texture of the soil between your fingers. You can see whole plant communities, not just isolated plants in pots. Only then can you really begin to appreciate the environment in which a plant grows.

Tulips grow wild in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. This is where the plants you can buy and grow originally came from, where the range of forms is far greater than is found in commercial stocks, and, most intriguing of all, where tulips yet to be seen in cultivation may be hiding, waiting to be discovered. The range of the genus extends in a broad sweep from the Iberian Peninsula of south-western Europe, along the northern and southern coasts of the Mediterranean, through Turkey, the Middle East and Iran, to central Asia, western China, and the western Himalaya. In the north the range reaches southern Siberia before the climate becomes too cold for tulips to survive. To the south, progress is halted by the hot, dry deserts of the Arabian Peninsula and south-eastern Pakistan, and the Sahara of Africa.

When the number and variety of species across the range of the genus are studied, two centres of diversity can be identified. These are regions where the most variation and highest number of species are found. The main centre of diversity is in central Asia, in an area covering the Tien Shan and Pamir Alai mountain ranges. The second is the Caucasus Mountains, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

Tulips are usually found in hills and mountains, where the winter may be cold and icy but the spring brings moisture, allowing them to grow and flower before the onset of the hot, dry summer, when they retreat underground. It is in central Asia, in countries like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, that the genus Tulipa originated. From here it has spread west, as far as the Atlantic Ocean.

In the wild, tulips frequently grow on grassy or stony slopes, in an open situation, where they are not crowded out or shaded by trees and large shrubs. They can grow on rocky ground or in gorges, emerging between stones or in crevices, or clinging to ledges. Some species, such as Tulipa borszczowii and T. lehmanniana, have crept away from the mountains and grow in sandy soils, in the steppes of central Asia, while others, like T. dasystemonoides and T. tschimganica, have explored higher elevations and become established in subalpine regions. The majority are confined to the middle ground, in hills or on lower slopes of high mountains.

The range of tulips from the Tien Shan is huge. More than twenty of the species described in this book are native to these mountains. The Tien Shan is made up of many mountain ranges, some reaching over 5000 m (16,400 ft.), that run along the border of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and into the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang. Most of these ranges, such as the Kirghiz, the Talas Ala Tau, and the Chatkal Range, are south of the city of Almaty and east of Tashkent. To the north-east of Almaty is the Dzungarian Ala Tau and to the north of Tashkent, stretching like a finger pointing towards the Aral Sea, is the Karatau (Qaratau) Range. Many tulips in the Tien Shan are widespread, their populations overlapping and giving rise to hybrids. They include the well-known species Tulipa greigii and T. kaufmanniana. Tulipa kolpakowskiana and its close relatives, such as T. ostrowskiana, T. tetraphylla, and T. iliensis, are found in these ranges, as is another group of closely related species that includes T. albertii and T. vvedenskyi. The Tien Shan is also home to several of the species classified in section Biflores, including T. turkestanica, T. bifloriformis, T. dasystemon, and T. tarda.

To the south-east of Tashkent is the Fergana Basin, with the Fergana Range in the east, home to the beautiful Tulipa ferganica. To the south of Fergana are the Turkestan and Zeravshan Ranges, the latter home to T. orithyioides and the dazzling red T. ingens. These mountains are part of the Pamir Alai, which, like the Tien Shan, is a group of ranges, reaching nearly 7500 m (24,600 ft.) high. They form a western extension of the Himalaya and to the south they merge with the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan. Widely cultivated tulips from this region include T. linifolia, T. praestans, and the magnificent T. fosteriana. Some species from the Tien Shan, such as T. dasystemon, T. turkestanica, and T. neustruevae, are also found in the Pamir Alai.

The Altai Mountains rise up in north-eastern Kazakhstan, continuing into north-western China, Mongolia, and southern Siberia. The climate here is severely continental, with long, freezing winters. Summers can be hot, reaching 40°C (104°F) on the lower slopes, but they are fairly short. This region is the northern limit for the natural range of the genus Tulipa and the few species that grow here include T. uniflora, T. heteropetala, and T. patens. These tulips are used to dry winters because all water is frozen in their natural home. They need to be grown more like alpine plants and are difficult to keep in the open garden in areas where winters are wet and temperatures fluctuate above and below freezing point. Tulipa altaica and T. kolpakowskiana also reach this far north, the former taking its name from these mountains.

To the south-east of the Pamir Alai, the genus Tulipa reaches the western Himalaya, in Kashmir and northern India. Here grows T. clusiana, the lady tulip, sometimes reaching altitudes of 3350 m (11,000 ft.). This variable species produces flowers in shades of yellow and white, often with red or pink staining on the outside. It is not confined to this part of the world but is also found much further west, in Afghanistan and Iran. It has even become naturalized in southern Europe and western Turkey.

To the west of the Tien Shan and Pamir Alai are the steppes of the Kyzylkum and Karakum Deserts in southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Between these two desert regions, the Amu Dar'ya River flows from the Pamir Alai to the Aral Sea. To the north of the Kyzylkum is the Syr Dar'ya River, flowing out of the Fergana Basin, also to the Aral Sea. Few tulips have penetrated this region and those that have, such as Tulipa bifloriformis, T. greigii, and T. korolkowii, usually follow mountain ranges, such as the Karatau Range and the Nuratau Range north of Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Tulipa borszczowii and T. lehmanniana survive in this dry, inhospitable place, growing in sandy soil and stony desert. Tulips that grow here need careful watering in cultivation and need to be grown in a bulb frame or glasshouse, to keep off excess moisture.

Along the border of Turkmenistan and Iran is the Kopet–Dag Range, home to several species including Tulipa hoogiana and T. montana. The latter is also found in other parts of Iran, such as the Elburz Mountains, north of Tehran. Tulipa systola, T. ulophylla, T. biflora, T. sylvestris, and T. aucheriana are among the species found in Iran. Hot, dry summers are common in this part of the world, and tulips from here will also need some protection from rain in cultivation.

In north-western Iran, around Tabriz, and over the border into Azerbaijan and Turkey are more species that can be grown in the open garden, including the various forms of Tulipa humilis. A brick-red form of this species, named T. kurdica, is found in Iraq, as are T. biflora and T. systola. From this region northwards the number of species begins to increase as the Caucasus Mountains, the second centre of diversity for the genus Tulipa, are reached.

The Caucasus Mountains stretch 1200 km (750 miles) from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, through Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. There are two main ranges, the Greater and Lesser Caucasus, and the highest mountain, Mount Elbrus, reaches 5642 m (18,510 ft.). Tulip species found growing in this region include Tulipa eichleri, T. julia, T. humilis, T. schrenkii, and T. sosnovskyi. The range of the Turkish species T. armena extends into the Caucasus, and T. biflora passes through these mountains on its way to southeastern Europe.

To the north and east of the Black Sea are found Tulipa biflora, T. biebersteiniana, and T. schrenkii. This region is also at the western edge of the range of T. patens.

Many of the Turkish species, such as Tulipa agenensis, T. clusiana, T. sintenisii, and T. undulatifolia, are plants of cultivated ground and have most likely been introduced from further east. Truly wild species include T. armena, T. julia, T. biflora, and T. humilis. Despite the extensive study of the Turkish flora, new species are still being discovered, such as T. cinnabarina from the Taurus Mountains in the south of the country.

In western Turkey are species that are also found on the Balkan Peninsula and Greek islands. Tulipa orphanidea is a variable species that grows in the mountains of Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Variations of this tulip have been named individually, including the Greek T. hageri, the Cretan T. goulimyi and T. doerfleri, and the Turkish T. whittallii. Tulipa saxatilis grows in south-western Turkey and on the islands of Rhodes and Crete. Tulipa sylvestris is also found in Turkey, as well as a large part of Europe, and a form of T. undulatifolia, named T. boeotica, is found in the Balkans.

The natural range of the genus Tulipa is extended west by T. sylvestris in its various guises. Individually named variants of this species from Europe and North Africa include T. australis, T. primulina, and T. celsiana. With this group of tulips, the range of the genus reaches the mountains of Spain and Portugal, and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Other tulips found growing in Europe include Tulipa agenensis, T. praecox, and T. clusiana, which are introduced species from Asia. Tulipa cypria is endemic to Cyprus, and T. bakeri and T. cretica are endemic to Crete.

In Europe, the range of the genus has expanded north through naturalization. Like all bulbs, tulips form a storage organ to survive the dry summer, making them easy to transport and sell. In their dormant state, bulbs can travel long distances without any attention, other than keeping them dry and cool. They can sit on the shelves of shops and garden centres for weeks or can be posted around the world without any detrimental effect. Man has undoubtedly helped the spread of tulips and once in their new home some have made the most of their new surroundings. They become naturalized, often spreading by stolons to form small populations in fields, meadows, orchards, and on waste ground. In this way, the yellow-flowered Tulipa sylvestris has reached as far north as Scotland and southern Scandinavia.

It can be difficult to see tulips in the wild. An organized tour to Iran or the Tien Shan is a wonderful experience but can be costly. Visiting other areas within the range of the genus may be problematic due to frequent political unrest or even war. Turkey is a vast and beautiful country, and well worth a visit, but to see a range of species in a small area, a trip to the Greek island of Crete is ideal.

Crete is home to five species of tulip and with a little searching you should be able to come across them all. Tulipa goulimyi is the hardest to find as it grows in only a small area on the western coast of the island, near Falassarna. It has attractive, wavy-edged leaves and a red flower that peers from between stones and low shrubs. Closely related is T. doerfleri, which grows in larger numbers, in fields in the Kedros Mountains of west-central Crete.

On rocky ground and in gorges across the island you can find the tiny, pale pink Tulipa cretica and the larger-flowered, pink to lilac-purple T. saxatilis. The latter can often be seen high up on gorge walls or cliffs, where the flowers emerge from crevices and ledges. Very similar to T. saxatilis is T. bakeri but with flowers generally of a deeper pink. The latter grows on the high, flat plains of Omalos and Lassithi, scattered across fields and meadows.

If you visit Crete in early to mid-April, you can find these tulips if you hire a car and explore the gorges, hills, and mountains, which rise to over 2400 m (7900 ft.). The trip will be an excellent introduction to wild tulips and may inspire you to learn more about these beautiful plants. It certainly had that effect on me.

Read More

Meet the Author

Richard Wilford has worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for 17 years and is currently the collections manager responsible for alpines, bulbs, and herbaceous perennials. For more than six years he looked after the extensive bulb collection in Kew's Alpine Nursery, including the cultivation and propagation of the tulip collection. He then moved to the Rock Garden, growing a range of alpines and bulbs planted in the open. Richard has written articles for a range of publications as well as a book about alpine and bulbous plants that have been featured in Curtis's Botanical Magazine, for which he serves on the editorial committee.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >