Wild Tulips


Speak of tulips and what generally comes to mind is a bed of tall, stately, multicolored cultivars, the fruit of hundreds of years of skillful breeding. In the face of such splendor, it is easy to forget the species tulips that were their forebears. Yet species tulips, the many wild varieties native to the Middle East and central Asia, are delightful plants in their own right. They may be smaller, but they possess an entirely distinctive and subtle charm.

Wild tulips are classified in two main groups based upon the outline shape of the flower and the absence or presence of hairs at the base of the stamens. Species in the first group, subgenus Tulipa, have hairless stamens and flowers that are bowl-shaped at the base. Those in the second group, subgenus Eriostemones, have hairy stamens and flowers that taper gradually at the base, giving them a funnel shape.

The two groups of wild tulips also differ in color. Those of subgenus Tulipa are frequently red (yellow ones are mostly sports of red-flowered species). This group contains all the gaudier tulips; genes from these species have provided us with our numerous large-flowered cultivars. By contrast, Eriostemones tulips are never bright red, but rather white, yellow or shades of purple or pink.


Several of these showy red tulips—T. agenensis, T. oculis-solis, T. sharonensis, T. praecox, and T. aleppensis—are capable of producing stolons, often forming extensive weedy patches in cultivated areas, making it difficult to trace their true origin. Others, such as T. armena from Turkey and T. systola from Iran, grow in wild situations. Tulipa armena is a stocky plant with broad, gray-green leaves and red flowers with a small, black, yellow-margined blotch in the center. The similar T. systola has attractive wavy-edged leaves and large, red, short-stemmed flowers. None of these species is commonly grown in gardens. Their relatives further east in central Asia have taken to cultivation much better. A good example is T. fosteriana, often hybridized with the Darwin cultivars to improve the range. This tall species grows wild in the mountains south of Samarkand, its brilliant flame red flowers often tinged with gold on the exterior. Tulipa vvedenskyi is a superb plant, generally eight inches in height with flame red, yellow-eyed flowers. Tulipa praestans is better known and more readily available. Its flower colors are similar but it has a stocky habit with leaves clustered at the base and multiple flowers per stem. There are several named selections of T. praestans; one of them, ‘Unicum’, has conspicuously white-variegated leaves.


A fine species from central Asia that has had great influence on modern tulip cultivars is T. greigii. Perhaps its best feature is its broad, gray-green foliage with bold purple-brown stripes, although this easily grown species has other attractions not to be overlooked. Short, sturdy, and early to flower, it possesses a characteristic conelike bud shape. Although often deep red, wild populations may vary widely to yellow, orange, and cream. So many cultivars have been bred that they are now placed together as the Greigii Group. I still rate old ‘Red Riding Hood’ as one of the best, closely resembling the wild species, although ‘United States’ is lovely, too, its bright red petals licked with yellow flamelike patterns at the edges.


The Kaufmanniana Group takes its name from the species upon which it is based, the central Asiatic T. kaufmanniana. These tulips are very early, very hardy, and short in stature, which makes them ideal for rock or container gardening. I love the way they emerge from the ground in early spring, their broad, gray-green leaves forming a tube from which the flower arises to open almost flat—like a water lily—in the sunshine. The original species has creamy flowers with a reddish stain on the outside, but there are yellow, orange, and red forms and many cultivars, some named after famous composers and writers: ‘Giuseppe Verdi’, ‘Johann Strauss’, and ‘Shakespeare’.


Tulipa clusiana and its relatives, several species from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the western Himalayas, comprise another group. Known as lady tulips, these are graceful plants with narrow, gray-green leaves and fairly small flowers. In its wild form, the flowers of T. clusiana have crimson-flushed white petals with a dark purple eye and dark stamens. Variations include T. c. forma stellata, also white with a crimson flush, but with a yellow eye and yellow stamens; T. c. var. chrysantha with yellow flowers, an external crimson band, and yellow stamens; and T. c. forma cashmeriana, whose entirely yellow flowers have no crimson coloration on the outside. They are excellent garden plants, and will survive winters if given a position in full sun with not too much competition. Just to the west and north of their range occur the related T. montana and T. linifolia. Common in northern Iran, T. montana is a delight when found growing wild in its rocky home, its flattish brilliant red, yellow, or orange flowers opening over narrow, gray, very wavy leaves. Similar in its size and appearance, but much easier to grow, is the bright red, central Asiatic T. linifolia (sometimes called T. maximowiczii). Its yellow counterpart T. batalinii is available from nurseries in a range of shades.

This is also the place to mention T. ostrowskiana as the red form of it in cultivation is similar in general appearance to T. linifolia. It is, however, variable in the wild—as most are—and there are versions of it with yellow flowers flushed red on the outside. This coloring is reminiscent of T. kolpakowskiana, a pleasing tulip from central Asia which does well in cultivation and also has yellow flowers with a pinkish or reddish flush on the exterior.

In addition to these wild species there are populations of tulips belonging to subgenus Tulipa in Europe and western Asia that have become naturalized and give the impression of being native species. These have been referred to as the “Neo-tulipae” and christened with Latin names. Some of them, including T. didieri, T. grengiolensis, T. hungarica, and T. suaveolens, are available in nurseries from time to time.


The wild species of the subgenus Eriostemones are more modest in appearance than then those of subgenus Tulipa, although they certainly do not lack garden value. Their generally smaller flowers are never bright red, but instead usually white, yellow, or purple—although T. orphanidea and T. kurdica can be a brick red shade.

One of the most delightful of all dwarf tulips is T. humilis. It has a cluster of narrow leaves at ground level and colorful short-stemmed flowers opening out to a saucer shape in the sun. This excellent little species from the Turkish and Iranian mountains is readily available and inexpensive. It varies considerably in the wild, and in the past some of these forms were named as separate species—T. pulchella and T. violacea, for example. There are some superb variants offered in the trade in a range of pinks and purples with black or yellow centers, often with names reflecting their oriental origins: ‘Eastern Star’ and ‘Persian Pearl’. A very choice white form with a deep violet center, ‘Albo-caerulea Oculata’ usually costs a great deal but is highly desirable. The dusky pink T. aucheriana is another of this group, as is T. kurdica from northern Iraq, whose rusty orange-red bloom has a dark center. Crete is the home of T. saxatilis, a distinctive tulip with gorgeous, large, yellow-centered pink flowers and broad, shiny green leaves. It can be a fine garden plant in a hot sunny place, but remember that it is stoloniferous and may form large patches. There is a more compact variant available, called T. bakeri, which is usually sold as ‘Lilac Wonder’.

Where the T. humilis group normally has three to five grayish leaves per bulb, another group of distinctive low-growing Eriostemones, T. biflora and its relatives, has just two. Their small, fragrant, starry flowers are mostly white with a yellow center, although some are entirely yellow. While not dramatic, they are very suitable subjects for container cultivation or rock gardens. Probably the most widely distributed of all wild tulips, T. biflora may be found from the Balkans eastward through Turkey and Russia to Iran and Turkmenistan, and south to Saudi Arabia. It usually has white flowers with a deep yellow center and a variable amount of greenish or purplish staining on the outside. A particularly vigorous clone has been selected and made available under the name T. polychroma. The name biflora indicates that this species produces more than one flower per stem. In fact, some of its relatives, such as T.turkestanica, are multi-flowered.


Bulb Frames

Certain types of bulbs such as Tulipa biflora and T. montana require a clearly defined warm, dry dormant period in order to ripen properly. In the United Kingdom, where these bulbs would die off or flower poorly in our damp, cool climate, bulb frames are used.

A bulb frame is simply a raised bed or cold frame with the means to cover the bulbs when necessary-usually after they have died down in early summer. It is also useful for sheltering them from inclement weather at flowering time. If raised up to waist level, a bulb frame can also bring small subjects within range for better viewing.

It matters little whether it is built of ornamental stone, bricks, concrete, or railway sleepers, the important thing is that it is filled with a freely draining soil mix such as one would use for potting bulbs. Frame covers are also a matter of preference, whether plastic or glass, but it is a good idea to have plenty of headroom—at least 18 inches—to allow the taller species to develop properly.-B.M.

The well-known and most attractive T. tarda from central Asia also falls into the biflora group. Here, the yellow zone in the center takes up most of the flower, with just the very tips of the petals white. Among those with completely yellow flowers T. urumiensis is the most familiar; it is widely available and an excellent dwarf variety. In recent years another really good, even smaller yellow tulip from Uzbekistan has become available under the name T. neustruevae (which is possibly synonymous with T. dasystemon). Of the species tulips I have tried this has proved to be among the most reliable in terms of survival from year to year and freedom of flowering.

Surprisingly, England, which is not noted for native bulbous plants, does have a tulip, although it may not be truly wild but a garden escapee. Tulipa sylvestris has slender yellow flowers, usually flushed green on the outside. It is by no means free-flowering, but, fortunately, the similar Mediterranean T. australis (or T. celsiana), a probable subspecies of T. sylvestris, flowers much more reliably. It tends to be smaller and its starry yellow flowers are marked with pink or reddish purple. Related to these are several tulips from Greece and Turkey—T. orphanidea, T. hageri, and T. whittallii—that, though given separate names, are probably all variants of a single species. Their dull copper, yellowish orange, or red-brown colors are unspectacular but distinctive. As garden plants I find them pleasing and relatively easy to keep.


Although the division of wild tulips into two subgenera looks neat, one species does not fit in: T. sprengeri. The red flowers and hairless stamens of this Turkish species suggest that it belongs in subgenus Tulipa. However, its flowers taper at the base and thus resemble the Eriostemones tulips. This botanical misfit is nevertheless a first-rate plant, easy to cultivate and inclined to produce a large quantity of seeds. It differs from most other tulips in that it prefers a damp or semi-shaded situation. In the clay soil of my garden in southeast England it has even seeded itself into clumps of hostas! It is the only tulip I grow that naturalizes by means of self-sown seeds. Its blossoms are a brilliant red with a gold overlay on the outside, and its leaves are bright green. Although it was at one time thought to be extinct in the wild, there are reports of its rediscovery.


The fundamental requirement for the cultivation of all wild tulips (except for T. sprengert) is a warm, dry summer rest period when the bulbs can lie dormant. If such conditions are met then the bulbs can be left in the ground indefinitely. Areas that have light summer rainfall may also be suitable, provided the soil is well drained and dries out quickly after a shower. In damper climates it will be necessary to make up special soil mixes incorporating sharp grit to encourage drainage, and, possibly, to use raised beds if the natural soil is heavy. In areas that are just too damp in summer, wild tulips can still be grown. But in that case it pays to lift the bulbs as soon as they have died down in early summer, and clean and store them in a warm, dry place (but not in direct sun) until replanting time in autumn. In the wild many species tulips grow on alkaline soils, but in cultivation they seem to be fairly tolerant. Given the right drainage, neutral or even slightly acid soils are acceptable. H

For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 88.

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