Species tulips, attractive foliage and particularly elegant buds

Tulpen - Unsere Zwiebelsichtung kommt in Fahrt © Isabelle Van Groeningen

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzung – auf Deutsch lesen – Ever since coming to Berlin, I have “discovered” tulips. Not that I did not know them before, but they certainly seem to do better here: they do not mind the cold winters, and the hot dry summers suit their dormancy perfectly. The rapidly warming spring season results in a  seamless progression from spring into summer, as the last tulips flower, the first perennials such as Aquilegia and catmints start. I love to see the hundreds of tulips in amongst the perennials bring a big splash of colour, knowing from this point on the border will not stop flowering until late November when the last aster ‘Lady in Black’ fades. It is a sensation I look forward to each year.



This year, my tulip love has taken on a completely new dimension. These past weeks I have been able to observe a great number of them close-up. We built a three-tier stage on which a large selection of our spring bulbs are displayed in pots. Each day I visit this display, as each day I discover new details. I have realized how much detail I miss when they are massed in the border in among the other plants.

Attractive foliage

Up until now I have always thought of tulips as having a relatively wide leaf, with a matt texture in a pale, slightly grey-green colour. The majority does indeed have such leaves, but particularly the wild tulips have much more diverse foliage. Many tend to have much narrower, often more glaucous delicate leaves. The appearance of the delightfully charming lady tulips, Tulipa clusiana is very elegant and delicate with their slim leaves barely 1cm wide. ‘Honky Tonk’, a fascinating silky pale lemony yellow variety with a slight pink blush on the reverse of the petals,  has similar narrow greyish leaves. Tulipa polychroma is more grey, a colour which complements its subtle flowers well (see below) whereas the scented, pinky-mauve Tulipa saxatilis has thick shiny, much more erect mid-green foliage which appears very early on. 

Red patterned leaves

Greigii tulips that originate from Kazachstan, as well as the Kaufmanniana types, often have distinctive brown-red markings on their broad foliage, that add a decorative note to a planting. They flower early, usually 25-30 cm tall and open their flowers like ‘Red Ridinghood’ and ‘Show Winner’ wide as the sun appears. They are ideal for rock gardens and containers, where they complement well the red foliage of Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ or red bugle. 

Variegated foliage

Some varieties such as the pale pink viridiflora tulip ‘China Town’ have a creamy-coloured thin line on the edge of the leaves. Personally I am not a great fan of variegated foliage, as it often creates restlessness in a border, but of course in a pot, on their own, it is an added bonus.

Interesting noses

I love plants with a good nose: as they appear out of  the soil, I greet the first sign of every plant with pleasure. When this nose has a decorative value, it makes this first encounter of the season even more pleasurable. Some of the tulip varieties have distinctive reddish colouring in the first few weeks. ‘Orange Princess’, a double late variety, with green streaking on the back of the petals comes up with pink-tipped foliage.

Beautiful buds

During my daily inspections of the early narcissi, I have been observing the development of flowerbuds of the early tulips.

Tulipa polychroma

Tulipa polychroma was the first one to come into bud. What a treat it was: the back of the three petals that enclose the bud has a soft penciled grey-green-violet colouring opening to white flowers.

Tulipa humilis

The next ones to come into action are the small botanical varieties of Tulipa humilis. ‘Tete-a-Tete’ has several tightly filled flowers per stem, but these sit deep in amongst the foliage, and lack the airy elegance most tulips have. T. humilis ‘Helene’ came next, with the outside petals similar to the inside, except for a few very fine dark blue lines, the come together at the base of the petal. T. humilis ‘Persian Pearl’ on the other hand  is much more attractive, with its deep purple flowers, whose outside petals are grey-pink with greenish-purple veining and a purple edge. The curl back to reveal the rich purple colouring of the inside petals.

Tulipa batalinii

These charming series of wild tulips comes in a lovely range of soft apricot, salmon, sulphur yellow colours. Barely reaching 10cm, they need to be placed where they will be seen: the front of a rockgarden or in a pot. The buds of  ‘Salmon Gem’ start white, flushed shades of soft pink with a greenish base revealing a warm salmon colour. ‘Bronze Charm’ is a warmer copper colour on the outside, a softer yellow on the inside. The outsider in this series is ‘Red Gem’ with bright scarlet flowers.

Tulipa praestans

Whereas many of the species tulips make a somewhat delicate impression, these are robust, long-lived tulips I greatly appreciate. T. praestans ‘Fusilier’ with its luminous red 2-3 flowers per stem draw the eye from far away.  It has been thriving in my shady garden since years, steadily increasing from year to year. The cool temperatures have meant the display has lasted a particularly long time this year. If you shy away from such strong colours, then ‘the variety ‘Shogun’ is yours: the soft apricot-orange flowers will suffuse with red as they come to the end of their flowering season.

Tulipa Clusiana

The lady tulips have long gained a place in amongst my very favourite tulips. Their 20-30cm tall, slender stems, narrow foliage and slim pointed buds revealing a totally different inside colour are the most elegant of all the tulips. In bud they are pinkish red with pure white inside (‘Peppermint Stick’), red with lemon yellow (‘Cynthia’), warm red with golden yellow (T. clusiana var. chrysantha) and warm red and yellow (T. clusiana var. chrysantha ‘Tubergen’s Gem’). Unlike most other tulips, these favour damp meadows, making them more suitable when your soil /climate is too wet for most others. 

Tulipa whitalii

This warm-orange rounded tulip has buds that change from golden orange into shades of pink, orange, yellow and a little green at the base, before opening up to reveal almost cup-shaped warm orange flowers.

Tulipa sylvestris

Maybe not the most exciting of all buds, but unusually playful is Tulipa sylvestris. This species tulip which naturalizes well, has red-tipped green buds that slightly nod forward like a swan’s neck. These open up to golden yellow flowers with pointed petals. I fell in love with this tulip during a work-experience summer in a Scottish nursery in my student days and still love it dearly.

Tulipa acuminata

tulipa acuminata

This exceptional tulip is like no other. Reaching about 50cm tall, long, narrow twisting leaves, topped by a spidery flower. It has a unique slender shape, and very long, narrow pointed petals in yellow, usually streaked with red. They are like no other!

Tulipa sprengeri

Tulipa sprengeri
Tulipa sprengeri

Whilst sylvestris and the clusianas are amongst my personal top 10, top of the list is this one. Originating from Turkey, this is the last of all the tulips, flowering at the end of May, into early June. About 40cm tall, high above green foliage appears a long, slender bud with greenish-ochre colours, that almost look like gold dust. It sets seed and will naturalize, and will even tolerate light shade. The flowers open up to very elegant slim scarlet petals. Unfortunately is this rarely offered for sale, and when, for a high price.

The precise origins of many of these tulips are not known. Since hundreds of years mankind has been growing them in their gardens, and have allowed them to hybridize with others, and naturalized in their landscapes. So much so, that some have completely disappeared from their natural landscape, whilst others escaped over the garden wall and became part of the natural landscape. Wherever it is they came from: all are charming and bring huge joy in this early season. Make a note to plant some of these treasures in your garden or in your pots next autumn. Or better still: order now in our online shop and enjoy the early booking discount!