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Gardening 101: Tulip


Gardening 101: Tulip

November 2, 2016

Tulip, Tulipa: “The Garden Swan”

In The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas (the father of the more famous Dumas who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo), an entire town in the Netherlands is struck by tulip mania. An enormous prize is offered to any grower who can procure a truly black tulip. Indeed, the Dutch were well known for tulip worship, and rare tulip bulbs sold for prices equivalent to thousands of dollars in Amsterdam’s storied flower district. Though tulips are no longer valued as jewels (though perhaps they should be?) these members of the lily family still appear in luminous colors, with large and bright globes floating on improbably thin and graceful stems, looking like museum-quality baubles from ancient empires.


Above: Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer. For more, see Garden Visit: The Tulips of Hawthorn Cottage.

Of all the varieties of tulip cultivated across the Middle East and Europe, one might assume the multicolored tulips with their intricate veining were most precious. But for a long time, it was just the opposite; two-tone tulips, also called “broken” tulips, were sequestered from their single-colored brethren because their mottled pattern actually came from a mosaic virus spread by aphids.


Above: Photograph by Miss Pickering. For more, see Shopper’s Diary: Flowers by Miss Pickering.

Nowadays, both broken and traditional tulip bulbs are sold in garden stores, and the emergence of new hybrids means that not every multicolored tulip is “broken.”


Above: Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer.

Plant in autumn, in dry or even sandy soil (remember the tulip’s origins) spaced four to six inches apart. The bulb itself has everything the tulip needs to grow, so as long as it has access to sun and not too much moisture, incredible jewel-like blooms will be yours come spring.

Cheat Sheet

  • Tulips stand out against leafy neighbors like lavender and rosemary.
  • Distribute tulip bulbs randomly around the garden for a cottage feel.
  • Thwart rodent attacks by plating tulip bulbs in a basket.

Pink Tulips Bulbs Spilling Out of Paper Bag on Marble, Gardenista

Above: Photograph by Meredith Swinehart.

Keep It Alive

  • Plant tulips where they’ll get part to full sun.
  • Space bulbs four to six inches apart (or in a clump in a cottage garden).
  • Depending on region, plant in early to late autumn.

parrot tulips_marie viljoen_gardenista

Above: Photograph by Marie Viljoen.

Planning next spring’s garden? See Garden Design: 10 Favorite Tulips to Plant for Spring.

N.B.: For more of our favorite tulip tales, see:

N.B. : If you fancy another sort of bulb, Our Garden Design 101 guides can help. Dahlia 101 provides information on planting, care. and design. Starting from scratch? Our Hardscape 101 provides tips from start to finish.

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