Tulips are amongst the most popular of bulbs, valued for their brilliant flower colours and shapes. Plant in autumn for a show of spring flowers. Choose from a large range to suit the situation.
Botanical name Tulipa
Group Bulbous perennial
Flowering time Usually March to May
Planting time October-November
Height Varies, from 15cm (6in) to 75cm (30in); spread: 15cm (6in)
Aspect Full sun
Hardiness Fully hardy
Cultivation of tulips
Whether used in formal or informal beds and borders, tulips make ideal bedding plants combined with annual or biennial planting. Tulips can also be useful for containers, and some varieties can be naturalised in grass.
Tulips grow best in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun, sheltered from strong winds. All dislike excessively wet conditions; this is particularly true with alpine species which require excellent drainage. Exceptions include Tulipa sprengeri, T. sylvestris and T. tarda which prefer a more moisture-retentive soil with partial shade.
Incorporate organic matter into the soil before planting to improve both clay and sandy soils, making them much more suitable for tulips. Coarse gravel can also help improve growing in clay soils. Apply Growmore or chicken manure pellets (70g per sq m or 2oz per sq yd) before planting to help nutrient-poor soils.
A neutral to alkaline soil is preferred. Soils with a pH lower than 6.5 may need applications of lime.
To plant new bulbs:
- Plant from mid- to late autumn – this is later than most bulbs but a late planting can help reduce problems with the disease tulip fire
- Use only healthy bulbs, discarding any that show signs of damage or mould
- Plant at least twice the bulb’s width apart, and at a depth of two or three times the bulb's height
Most bedding-type (i.e. not species) tulips are best replaced each year. If left in the ground, they are unlikely to re-flower after their first year.
The alternative to discarding old bulbs and replacing with new is to lift and dry the tulip bulbs after flowering:
- Deadhead to prevent seed production, and wait until foliage turns yellow before lifting the bulbs (about six weeks after flowering)
- If you need to lift earlier, place in trays until the leaves become yellow and straw-like
- Clean the soil off the bulbs, and discard any that may be diseased or damaged
- Allow the bulbs to dry thoroughly before storing
- Store the bulbs in trays or net bags in a warm, dark, well-ventilated place at 18-20°C (65-68°F), before replanting in the autumn
- As flowering is uncertain, it is often best to use old bulbs in the less important beds, borders and containers, and use new bulbs for conspicuous areas
Dwarf species tulips such as Tulipa kaufmanniana, T. fosteriana, T. greigii and their hybrids often re-flower without lifting. Only lift and divide when clumps get overcrowded.
Although not usual, some cultivars growing in warm soils – where they can be baked in summer – may re-flower from year to year, and possibly multiply.
Tulip bulbs can be increased by two methods:
Division: Separate offsets when bulbs are lifted to be stored dry in a tray over summer. Replant offsets at least 20cm (8in) deep; if planted too shallow, they may not flower.
Seed: Sow the papery seeds in autumn; they will need a period of frost to germinate evenly. It may take 4-7 years for flowers to be produced. Tulips hybridize easily, but most cultivars are sterile or produce few good seedlings.
Tulips are divided into 15 divisions chiefly defined by their flower characteristics and sometimes referred to in bulb catalogues. Broadly speaking, their flowers can be described as single or double; cup-shaped, bowl-shaped or goblet-shaped; fringed, parrot or lily-flowered; long, slender-tepalled or star-shaped.
When choosing tulips, consider their flowering times, suitability for borders, containers (see below), or a rock garden where the smaller species such as Tulipa tarda AGM or T. kaufmanniana can be best utilised. Some are ideal for naturalising in fine grass; in particular, the low-growing tulip T. sprengeri AGM.
Amongst the most popular for bedding, borders or containers:
Tulipa biflora: from late winter, produces fragrant, star-shaped flowers in ones or twos with white petals which are golden-yellow at the base and flushed grey on the undersides. Height 10cm (4in).
T. ‘Mount Tacoma’ (Double Late Group): Pink and green buds open to peony-flowered creamy-white blooms in late spring. Height 40cm (16in).
T. ‘Purissima’ (Fosteriana Group) AGM: Single, bowl-shaped slightly fragrant pure white flowers on sturdy stems produced mid-spring. Height 35cm (14in).
T. ‘Spring Green’ (Viridiflora Group) AGM: Green-feathered ivory-white flowers in late spring. Height 40cm (16in).
T. ‘White Triumphator’ (Lily-flowered Group) AGM: Graceful long-stemmed flowers of pure white. Height 60cm (2ft).
Purple-black or violet-blue flowers:
T. ‘Black Parrot’ (Parrot Group) AGM: Distinctive crimped and curled, cup-shaped single bright violet-blue flowers are shaded bronze on the inside of the petals, borne in late spring. Height 60cm (2ft).
T. ‘Blue Diamond’ (Double Late Group, peony-flowered): Bowl-shaped dark bluish-purple flowers in late spring. Height 40cm (16in).
T. ‘Blue Heron’ (Fringed Group) AGM: Purple-fringed violet-purple flowers, cobalt-violet with white stripes inside the petals during late spring. Height 60cm (2ft).
T. ‘Queen of Night’ (Single Late Group): Velvety dark purple-black cup-shaped flowers in late spring. Height 60cm (2ft).
T. ‘Angelique’ (Double Late Group) AGM: Peony-shaped, full, slightly ruffled shell-pink flowers are suffused darker pink. Height 30cm (1ft).
T. ‘Attila’ (Triumph Group): Single cup-shaped pinkish-purple flowers on strong stems. Good for forcing. Height 40cm (16in).
T. ‘China Pink’ (Lily-flowered Group) AGM: Elegant deep-pink goblet-shaped blooms have white bases inside, with swept-back pointed tips. Height 50cm (20in).
T. ‘Foxtrot’ (Double Early Group): Soft pink flowers with darker undertones. Height 30cm (1ft).
T. ‘Apeldoorn’s Elite’ (Darwin Hybrid Group) AGM: Red-feathered buttercup-yellow flowers flushed yellowish-green at the bases in mid-spring. Height 60cm (2ft).
T. clusiana var. chrysantha AGM: Stems with 1-3 yellow flowers, flushed reddish-brown outside, becoming star-shaped. Height 30cm (1ft).
T. ‘Hamilton’ (Fringed Group) AGM: Buttercup-yellow flowers with darker yellow fringes and anthers in late spring. Height 50cm (20in).
T. ‘Sweetheart’ (Fosteriana Group): Ivory-white flowers with lemon-yellow flames, deep yellow inside. Height 30cm (1ft).
T. ‘West Point’ (Lily-flowered Group) AGM: Primrose yellow flowers in late spring. Height 50cm (20in).
Apricot, crimson or red flowers:
T. ‘Aladdin’ (Lily-flowered Group): Yellow-margined scarlet flowers in late spring. Height 45cm (18in).
T. ‘Apricot Beauty’ (Single Early Group) AGM: Cup-shaped soft salmon-pink flowers, later with orange margins. Good for forcing. Height 35cm (14in).
T. linifolia AGM: bowl-shaped bright red flowers, each petal marked with black at the base. Height 30cm (1ft).
T. ‘Rococo’ (Parrot Group): Ornate green-feathered carmine-red blooms. Height 45cm (1.5ft).
T. praestans ‘Fusilier’ (Miscellaneous Group) AGM: One of the best dwarf varieties with 3-5 heads of bright scarlet-red blooms per bulb. Height 20cm (8in).
For the more rare and unusual species and cultivars from the Miscellaneous Group try:
T. acuminata: Has distinctive long, narrow red and yellow petals. Height 15-20cm (6-8in).
T. humilis ‘Odalisque’: With yellow-centred, beetroot-purple flowers during March and April. Height 10cm (4in).
T. orphanidea Whittallii Group AGM: With bright tangerine-orange flowers blotched olive-green at the base, in April-May. A colourful addition for the rock or alpine garden. Height 30cm (1ft).
T. praestans ‘Red Sun’: Has flask-shaped buds which open to star-shaped pillar-box red flowers from March to April. Height 20cm (8in).
Failure to flower: Small bulbs or bulbs growing in poor soil may not flower. Such bulbs should be lifted, the bed cleared of other plants, and the soil enriched with a well-balanced fertiliser. Only replant the largest bulbs. Feed with a high potassium fertiliser such as ‘Tomorite’ at weekly intervals after flowering. If the bulbs do not reach flowering size within two seasons, start again with fresh bulbs.
Bulb blindness can also be caused by insufficient ripening of the bulbs during the dormant period. Failure to lift bulbs, or keeping the lifted bulbs at temperatures lower than 18ºC (65ºF), will lead to flowering decline. Unless growing for seed, remove old flower heads to prevent seed pods weakening the bulb.
Excess of small bulbs: Small bulbs may be due to poor soil conditions (see above) or the over-production of offsets due to shallow planting. Replant deeper to discourage this.
Short flowering stem: Once in the ground, tulips require a cold period for flower extension to take place. UK winters are usually sufficient to supply this but, if planting was very late or the winter is particularly mild, then stunted flower stems may be a problem.
Pests and diseases:
Grey squirrels can often dig up bulbs after planting.
Aphids can develop on stored bulbs, as well as during the growing season, and can spread viruses. Holes in leaves and bulbs during early spring may be due to slugs. Stem eelworm is an infrequent problem that can cause distorted growth and malformed flowers.
Brown spots of dead tissue on leaves may indicate tulip fire disease. In severe cases the spots enlarge and extensive areas become brown and withered giving the impression of fire scorch.
Tulip viruses are indicated by streaked and distorted leaves and flowers.
Tulip grey bulb rot is caused by Sclerotium (Rhizoctonia) tuliparum. It is one of the sclerotinia diseases but it is more commonly described as rhizoctonia disease. Prompt removal of infected bulbs is very important and the only means of control. Do not replant bulbs in the infected area for five years.
Bulbs in store can be affected by blue mould rot.
Note: All parts may cause stomach upset if ingested. It is advisable to wear gloves when handling tulips, as contact with any part may aggravate skin allergies.
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.