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Tulips that come up year after year



Grow the dainty Tulipa bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’, a selection of a species native to Crete, and your tulip display can stage many happy returns.

Photo by colorblends

Admit it, you’re addicted to tulips. Come April, you can’t live without them, right? They are the season’s eye candy, the dollops of color that herald spring fever. But tulips have one little issue. Those big, bawdy, eye-popping, pleasingly plump flowers that steal the scene and knock your socks off, are, sadly, one-hit wonders. Sure, you might get a smattering of blossoms the second year, but compared to the traffic-halting display of their debut, what follows is not even close. Don’t despair because bulb purveyors have come up with a solution, and it fits beautifully with the way we garden today. 

What’s different about now? Everything. Years ago, we planted gardens solely devoted to tulips, and when they bowed out, we filled the blip with annuals. But nobody gardens that way anymore. Instead, we are opting for a more economical, natural approach for our perennial beds. And that’s the perfect setting to tuck in some wild (also known as species) tulips. These little numbers are bright and colorful, and the flowers are almost as hefty as their bigger sisters. Plus, they stage repeat performances in future years, so you get a whole lot of bang for your buck. 

The beauty of wild tulips is that they are becoming readily available—if you go the mail-order route. Most bulb companies now offer Tulipa clusiana ‘Lady Jane’ with its pink-and-cream-colored petals or T. clusiana ‘Cynthia’ with its yellow and peach spin on the same theme, as well as a smattering of similar species. They come up early, they look almost like wildflowers, and they do it year after year. A dozen here and a dozen there will give your garden zing long before it fully wakes up. 

Want something that can be seen from the street? Try bright-red Tulipa linifolia. Does lipstick-pink work better with your color scheme? Opt for T. bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder.’ Prefer something in the blue range? Select one of the T. humilis cultivars. You’ll find the new guys come in the same rainbow of color as the “old” guys. 

Wait! There are further advantages to going the wild route. Not only do species tulips tend to blossom earlier than their counterparts, their shorter, daintier foliage lends a graceful habit to boot. In other words, wild tulips don’t look unsightly as they die back, and nearby perennials will most likely cover over their not-so-wonderful browning leaves as they slip into slumber until next year. 

But maybe you yearn for a spring fling that makes a massive statement. You can say it loud and clear by orchestrating a combination of bulbs. Because wild tulips open early, they blend with other minor bulbs such as grape hyacinths, chionodoxa, Iris reticulata, scilla, and daffodils. Bulb purveyor Colorblends, in Bridgeport, sells expertly synchronized bulb blends that weave together to form a meadow effect, one that continues its display over the warmer months as various bulbs come and go.

They have a combination that is to die for called Aladdin’s Carpet composed of six different wild tulips, plus three muscari and a dwarf daffodil. It is color saturation over an extended period of time. Does it get any better than that? Don’t take my word for it; go see their show house in Bridgeport with its mass of bulbs running lickety-split around a white elephant of a mansion. With 25,000 flowers performing, it’s like a little trip to Holland in spring, and it’s free to the public. 

Warning: tulips are like filet mignon to grazing deer. So, if you have roving herds, you’ll need to spray your buds with a repellant. Or you could plant something less tasty—to deer, that is. Within the bulb realm, the guinea hen or checkered lily—Fritillaria meleagris—is a tulip look-alike with intricately patterned nodding bells that are completely deer- and rodent-proof.

In fact, some gardeners claim fritillarias send grazing nibblers packing with their slightly skunky scent. And how about hyacinths? They bear no resemblance whatsoever to tulips, but critters avoid these vigorous bloomers that form wands of tubular blossoming florets. Hyacinths share the tulips’ color range, but if the dense foxtail presentation that looks like cotton candy seems stilted to you, go for the Festival series of hyacinths—they hold their blossoms loosely on shorter spikes. 

However you orchestrate the show, make sure that spring is suffused with color by planning ahead and planting in autumn. Oops. You forgot? Don’t fret. You can attain instant gratification by purchasing spring bulbs and popping them in the ground as soon as it’s soft. Or try pansies. In fact, planting pansies or creeping phlox between spring bulbs is a savvy plan. Play your cards right, and this could become a perennial affair—tulips and you, same time next year.

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