Hybrid tulips dazzle winter-weary gardeners in spring, but many decline (or disappear) after their first year. To avoid disappointment, gardeners can treat hybrid tulips as annuals, pulling the bulbs after they bloom and planting fresh ones each fall, or dig and store the bulbs dry for the summer, replanting them before winter. But there’s an easier route: try species tulips.
These bulbs are less showy than the hybrids, but they bloom earlier and they are more apt to come back year after year without special treatment. They’ll often increase on their own, too. Just provide them full to part sun and well-drained soil that doesn’t receive heavy soakings in summer. Here’s a half-dozen favorite species, plus companions to plant alongside them.
Tarda tulip , Tulipa tarda
This species blooms in early spring, with each bulb producing three to six flowers, each on a stem four to six inches tall. When the white-tipped yellow petals open completely, they form a star-shaped flower to two-and-a-half inches across. Crocus-like gray-green foliage surrounds the flowers, reaching their same height.
Plant T. tarda four to five inches deep, spacing individual bulbs three to six inches apart. This species will naturalize when it’s happy, spreading by stolons (underground stems) and seed. USDA Zones 3–8.
As a companion bulbs, try Siberian squill (Scilla siberica; Zones 4–8), which blooms in true blue, a beautiful complement to the yellow-and-white tarda tulip.
Tarda tulip image by Ulf Eliasson (epibase) - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5
Lady tulip , T. clusiana var. chrysantha
Each bulb puts forth one flower, on a stem reaching six to ten inches tall, so the blossom rises higher than this bulb’s upright, gray-green leaves. The flowers remain closed on cloudy days and overnight. The flower comprises three red tepals and three yellow petals, giving it a two-tone appearance when it is closed or partially open. It will open fully in sunlight to create a yellow star.
Because each lady tulip produces just one delicate-looking flower, it is a species best used in quantities. The bulbs should be spaced no more than four or five inches apart. They are apt to gently spread by offsets that occur upon the parent bulb and stolons. This species is a good choice for climates that are too warm in winter for most other tulips. Zones 3–10.
Plant lady tulip with grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum; Zones 4–9), whose spikes of royal-blue blossoms are a good match for the brightness of the red-and-yellow lady tulip.
Lady tulip image by JerryFriedman - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Crocus tulip , T. pulchella violacea
An early-blooming species, crocus tulip does somewhat resemble its namesake in flower and leaf. The flowers, produced one per bulb, are a shocking hot pink with a golden center. The flowers and foliage all reach between four and six inches tall.
Plant the bulbs four inches deep and four inches apart. While other species tulips can cope with part shade, this one prefers only full sun. Zones 3–8.
Glory of the snow (Chionodoxa; Zones 3–8) is a native plant of Turkey, as is the crocus tulip. Depending on the species or cultivar, the bulb produces starry flowers in blue, white, pink or purple, all of which pair well with the hot pink of T. pulchella violacea.
Wood tulip , T. sylvestris
Wood tulip is a bit more forward than many of its fellow species, both in its appearance and behavior. The star-like yellow flowers can be four inches across, and they rise relatively tall, at eight to twelve inches in mid-spring. Each bulb may offer one or several flowers among long, narrow gray-green leaves.
Space the bulbs three to four inches apart. This species will take full sun to woodsy shade, but it flowers best with more light. Sometimes described as aggressive, wood tulip spreads by lengthy stolons, with new plants popping up some distance from the original bulb. It is best planted among grass or ground covers that it can stud with flowers. Zones 4–9.
Grape hyacinth makes a good match for wood tulip, with its robust nature and vivid blue color that’s the perfect contrast to the tulip’s golden yellow.
Wood tulip image CC BY-SA 3.0
Turkestan tulip , T. turkestanica
The small, windswept flowers of the Turkestan tulip stand in interesting contrast to the bulb’s hefty foliage, which is reminiscent of that of hybrid tulips. The celestial early- to mid-spring flowers can be two inches across, with a mauve-tinged exterior and yellow center. The blossoms appear alone or in clusters up to a dozen and stand eight to ten inches tall.
This species should be planted four inches deep and just three inches apart, so that the bulbs’ flowers aggregate into a cloud. Zones 4–8.
For a companion try squill, whose blue blossoms mimic the shape and posture of the Turkestan tulips, which are tall enough to hover above them.
Turkestan tulip image by Jerzy Opioła - Own work, CC BY 3.0
Whittall’s tulip , T. whittallii
A denizen of Turkish and Greek meadows, T. whittalli is considered a form of T. orphanidea. Growing to 12 inches tall with grassy foliage, it’s a long-blooming species with red-orange flowers that come ablaze when the sun shines through them.
Plant the bulbs five to six inches deep. Similar to wood tulip, it can increase by sending out long stolons, with new plants appearing scattered throughout the space. Zones 4–8.
Whittall's tulip image by Ghislain118 http://www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0