Tulips are one of the quintessential flowers of spring, and we've put together a comprehensive guide to these cheerful blooms, including our favourite varieties and advice on when to plant tulip bulbs
Without a doubt the tulip is the most widely depicted flower in all forms of art, which goes hand in hand with its popularity through history. Tulips arrived in Europe in the mid sixteenth century, brought over from Turkey by ambassadors and travellers who fell in love with their bright colours and lily-like flowers; even before this, however, the tulip was one of the most highly prized flowers of the East, depicted on Persian tiles as far back as the eleventh century, and later reaching almost iconic status in the Ottoman Empire. Ever since the first European description of the tulip in 1561, the plant has been painted again and again - both for botanical reference and for artistic pleasure - and the wealth of visual material in existence today has helped to chart the history of a plant that was once as valuable as gold.
The botanist Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), whom we have to thank for the tulip's early distribution throughout Europe, produced one of the earliest illustrations of the tulip - a black and white woodcut that appears in a book published in 1576. After Clusius began growing and increasing the numbers of tulips in the Leiden Botanical Garden at the end of the sixteenth century, he sent bulbs far and wide, kick-starting the Dutch obsession that saw bulbs being traded for unprecedented sums of money. Not surprisingly, this period is represented in art by a host of Dutch still-life flower paintings, by masters such as Jan Brueghel the Elder and Ambrosius Bosschaert.
At the height of tulipomania, a number of specialist tulip books were published in Holland. Commissioned either as sales catalogues for the bulbs or simply as a record for wealthy collectors, these exclusive tomes contained sumptuous colour plates of individual flowers, showcasing some of the finest and most valuable specimens of the day. Studying illustrations from these books, it is obvious that tulips were very different creatures in the seventeenth century. The fashion at the time was for 'broken' tulips, with intricately flamed or feathered petals that looked as though they had been painted by hand - what people didn't realise was that these plants were infected with a virus. So much did they admire the patterning that they went to great lengths to obtain the effects, even scattering powdered paint around the plant in the hope that the colours would pass into the flower.
Although these plants were weakened by disease, flamed or Rembrandt tulips continued to be popular throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reaching new heights when they were included as one of six elite plants grown by the English Florists' Societies. It wasn't until the early twentieth century, when the virus was finally discovered, that modern tulips started to take over, and today, flamed tulips have all but disappeared. But look out - rogue tulips with the characteristic flamed or feathered markings can still appear from time to time, and it is difficult not to be seduced.
The best tulip varieties
The loss of the old flamed varieties is more than made up for by the modern hybrids, which come in a variety of alluring colours and interesting shapes guaranteed to throw you into a frenzy of indecision. The flamboyant parrot tulips are a good substitute for the old Rembrandts. With rich, complex colours and elaborately curved or crimped petals that give each flower a distinctive character, they are actually sports or mutations of normal tulips, and usually flower at the end of the tulip season in May.
They make excellent cut flowers, and are best planted in pots where their intricate beauty can best be appreciated. There are dozens of parrot tulips to choose from. For dramatic colour, you can't beat the wonderfully over-the-top Tulipa 'Rococo', which has glossy crimson flowers with frilly green and purple petticoat edges, or T. 'Orange Favourite', whose bland name belies its beautiful colourings. T. 'Flaming Parrot' looks almost artificial with its kitsch, yellow- and red-striped flowers; T. 'Black Parrot' is more subtle, with sumptuous, dark purple, wavy petals, tinged green from the base. I have also fallen in love with the viridiflora tulips, which come in a variety of subtle shades, all streaked with green. The well-known T. 'Spring Green' is a popular and reliable viridiflora, as well as the orangey pink T. 'Artist' and the sugar-pink T. 'Groenland'. T. 'Green Wave' is a parrot tulip developed from 'Groenland', and is one of the most desirable of all, with frilled, pink and lime-green petals. For those intrigued by the past, some new Rembrandt hybrids are available, with similar flamed markings but without the virus. Among these, T. 'Rem's Favourite' is one of the loveliest, with white-feathered marks on a beetroot-purple base, while T.'El Cid' has golden flames licking up from a wonderfully vibrant purple/magenta base.
Polly Nicholson started Bayntun Flowers 10 years ago with the aim of growing British flowers for her own artisan floristry. She now grows 100 varieties of tulip in a cutting garden at her home in Wiltshire, and is trialling heritage varieties. She uses them as specimens, arranged singly in antique bottles of different heights and randomly grouped together, or as part of larger, wilder arrangements in which they create an element of surprise. ‘My favourites are probably ‘Columbine’ and ‘Insulinde’,’ she says. ‘I love their scale – compact and tulip-shape, despite the vogue for ever bigger, pointier or featherier cups, and this scale also seems fitting for the extraordinarily rich and delicate markings they wear.’
Both these varieties are true ‘broken tulips’, with the flamed or feathered markings that originally came about as the result of tulip breaking virus. These delicate beauties were the tulips that inflamed passions in seventeenth- century Holland, when Tulipmania saw bulbs changing hands for enormous sums of money. Any tulip can be affected by tulip virus (which is carried by certain types of aphid), with the result that the base colour is broken into interesting patterns, but of course they are fundamentally flawed as the virus will weaken the plant, which will dwindle and eventually die. However, varieties like ‘Insulinde’ (1916), ‘The Lizard’ (1903) and ‘Columbine’ (1909) have become genetically stable despite the virus, meaning that bulb specialists are able to raise stock from them. Heritage varieties of tulip are difficult to come by, as growers produce small quantities; the bulbs are expensive and you have to order early before supplies run out. But if you are determined, you can track down bulbs from growers such as Jacques Amand in the UK and the historic bulb conservation centre at Hortus Bulborum in Holland.
How to grow tulips
Tulips need a reasonably fertile, well-drained soil in full sun; they won't thrive in heavy, damp soils or in extremely exposed situations. In their natural habitats in Turkey and the East, most bulbs spend the summer baking in very dry ground, and if they are exposed to prolonged damp they will simply rot. The other constant battle with tulips is getting them to come back successfully year after year. Unlike some of the species tulips, which will naturalise and spread more readily, hybrid tulips often lose vigour and die out after only a year or two.
Planting them deeply may help, as those planted too shallowly will put all their energy into producing bulblets due to the higher soil temperatures. The recommended wisdom is to plant tulips in the ground to a depth double the height of the bulb, but often it is best to go even deeper, at least 15-20cm. Pot-grown tulips aren't usually successful the following year for this reason - the soil warms up even more quickly in pots - so it is better to lift them immediately after flowering, and either replant them straight away in open ground, leaves and all, or store them in a cool, dry place over the winter, until the following autumn.
In general, tulips shouldn't be planted too early in the autumn. November is the best time, after the first hint of frost, which will lessen the chance of fungal infections such as tulip fire. Plant the bulbs directly into the soil, adding a handful of sharp sand or grit to help drainage. Then sit back and wait for the first exciting green shoots to appear in spring, and anticipate the exuberant performance that is to come.