No other spring bulb matches the tulip for sheer spectacle. Tulips come in just about every color; their imposing flowers atop strong stems form the backbone of many a spring garden display. If you've only tried the big-flowered sorts, though, you're missing out on a lot. Many kinds are available, from the tall and stately to the dainty and whimsicaland even to the decidedly bizarre. In fact, many of the smaller, lesser-known species perform better in the South than their aristocratic cousins.
Large-flowered tulips, such as the Darwin hybrids, are ideal for sweeps and borders; mass at least 50 of a single color for impact. Plant them behind low, spring-blooming perennials such as candytuft (Iberis) or pinks (Dianthus), or with annuals such as forget-me-nots (Myosotis), sweet alyssum (Lobularia), or pansies and violas (Viola). Plant smaller, lower-growing species in rock gardens, raised beds, and alongside paths. Tulips are superb container plants; especially lovely in this role are the more unusual kinds, such as the Double Early, Parrot, and Rembrandt types.
Tulips have been classified into many divisions, defined mainly by flower type. For the convenience of gardeners, we have arranged the divisions into additional groupings; the first three are by bloom season, while the fourth contains species and their hybrids. For most divisions, we've also included best betsselections that perform especially well in the South.
Single Early tulips. Single flowers on 10- to 16-in. stems. Colors include white, yellow, salmon, pink, red, dark purple. Popular for forcing and growing indoors in pots. Best bets include 'Apricot Beauty' (soft salmon-pink), 'Bestseller' (blended salmon-pink and orange tones), 'Christmas Marvel' (cherry-red), 'Flair' (yellow heavily marked with red), and 'Mickey Mouse' (golden yellow marked with red flames).
Double Early tulips. Peonylike double flowers, often measuring 4 in. across, on 6- to 12-in. stems. Same color range as Single Early tulips. Effective massed in borders. In rainy areas, mulch around plants or surround with ground cover to keep mud from splashing the short-stemmed flowers. Look for 'Monsella' (yellow with red streaks), 'Montreau' (soft yellow blushed with rose), and 'Monte Carlo' (bright yellow, good perennializer).
Triumph tulips. Single flowers on sturdy stems to 20 in. tall. Wide range of solid colors, including red, white, yellow, and bicolors. Try 'Annie Schilder' (coral and orange blend), 'Gavota' (burgundy with yellow edge), 'Hibernia' (white), 'Passionale' (purple), and 'Princess Irene' (orange with purple flame).
Darwin hybrids. Spectacular group with brightly colored flowers on 24- to 28-in. stems. Most are in scarlet-orange to red range; some have contrasting eyes or penciling. Some reach 7 in. across. Pink, yellow, and white selections exist. Best bets include 'Banja Luka' (golden yellow marked with red), 'Come-Back' (blood red), 'Daydream' (apricot orange), 'Golden Apeldoorn' (golden yellow), 'Golden Parade' (pale buttercup yellow), 'Ivory Floradale' (ivory-white), 'Jewel of Spring' (soft yellow with thin red margins), 'Parade' (bright red), 'Pink Impression' (soft pink marked with deep rose), 'Red Impression' (red), and 'Silverstream' (creamy yellow sometimes streaked with red and white).
Single Late tulips. Graceful plants with large, oval or egg-shaped blooms on 112- to 3-ft. stems. Clear, beautiful colors: white, yellow, orange, pink, red, mauve, lilac, purple, maroon. May have contrasting margins. Includes old Darwin and Cottage groups. Good choices are 'Hocus Pocus' (butter-yellow with pink flame), 'Maureen' (white), 'Queen of Night' (blackish maroon), and 'Temple of Beauty' (salmon-rose).
Lily-flowered tulips. Graceful, lilylike flowers with recurved, pointed segments; come in white and shades of yellow, pink, red, and magenta, often with contrasting markings. Stems 2026 in. high. Look for the unusual green-and-white 'Green Star' and the elegant 'White Triumphator' (ivory-white).
Fringed tulips. Flowers have finely fringed edges. Colors include white, yellow, pink, red, and violet; fringing is often in a different color than rest of flower. Stems 1624 in. high. Recommended are 'Burgundy Lace' (wine red), 'Fringed Elegance' (yellow), and 'Honeymoon' (white).
Viridiflora tulips. Flowers edged in green or colored in blends of green with other hueswhite, yellow, rose, red, buff. Stems 1020 in. high. Try 'China Town' (soft pink and green), 'Spring Green' (white and soft green), and 'Yellow Spring Green' (pale yellow and apple-green).
Rembrandt tulips. Streaks and variegation on the original Rembrandts were caused by a transmittable virus; these infected bulbs can no longer be imported and should not be planted. Tulips now sold as Rembrandts have flame patterning of genetic, not viral, origin. New types in other divisions have a similar appearance.
Parrot tulips. Large, long, deeply fringed, and ruffled flowers atop 16- to 20-in. stems are striped, feathered, and flamed in various colors, including green. They once had weak, floppy stems, but modern types are stouter. Best bets include 'Blue Parrot' (deep violet), 'Flaming Parrot' (yellow and red), and 'Orange Favorite' (deep orange).
Double Late tulips. Often called peony-flowered tulips, these have very large (to 5-in.-wide), heavy-textured double blossoms on 14- to 20-in. stems. Colors include orange, rose, red to purple shades, yellow, and white. Recommendations include 'Angelique' (pink and white), 'Mount Tacoma' (white), 'Orange Princess' (orange marked with purple), and 'Uncle Tom' (deep maroon).
Kaufmanniana tulips. Often called waterlily tulip, T. kaufmanniana is a very early bloomer with 3-in., creamy yellow flowers (marked red on petal backs) with dark yellow centers; the flowers open flat in sun. Stems reach 68 in. high. Hybrids come in various colors, usually with flower centers in a contrasting color; many have mottled leaves like Greigii tulips. 'Ancilla' is a good example.
Fosteriana tulips. Early-blooming T. fosteriana has very large flowersto 8 in. wide. The red blossoms appear atop relatively short (8- to 10-in.) stems, which makes them look even larger. Hybrids include selections with flowers in red, orange, yellow, pink, and white. The 16-in.-high 'Red Emperor' ('Mme Lefeber') has fiery red flowers. 'Purissima' ('White Emperor') has large, pure white petals on 12- to 18-in. stems.
Greigii tulips. Midseason-blooming T. greigii has big (6-in.) flowers borne on 10-in. stems; leaves are heavily spotted and streaked with brown. Hybrids have flowers in white, pink, orange, red; many feature several colors in a single blossom. 'Fire of Love' has bright red blooms; green leaves are heavily streaked with maroon and cream. 'Red Riding Hood' has scarlet flowers; its leaves are streaked with brown.
Other species. Sold mainly by bulb specialists. Most are from western and central Asia. Simpler looking than large hybrid tulips, with a wildflower charm. Generally best in rock gardens or wild gardens, where plantings can remain undisturbed for many years; plant 4 in. apart. Also good in pots. Most are reliably perennial. Species that will persist from year to year in mild-winter areas are noted.
T. acuminata. Flowers have long, twisted, spidery segments of red and yellow on 112-ft.-tall stems. Late.
T. bakeri. Similar to and often listed as T. saxatilis. Lilac to purple flowers with a yellow base open to a wide, flat star; they are borne in clusters of three or four on stems to 1 ft. high. 'Lilac Wonder', to 67 in. high, has rosy purple flowers with a large, circular lemon-yellow base. Midseason. Good in mild-winter areas.
T. batalinii. Soft yellow flowers on 6- to 10-in. stems. Very narrow leaves. 'Red Jewel' has scarlet-red blossoms; 'Yellow Jewel' has lemon-yellow blossoms tinged with rose. Midseason.
T. clusiana. LADY or CANDY TULIP. Slender flowers on 9-in. stems are white, with outer petals marked in rosy red. Midseason bloom; good permanent tulips in mild-winter areas. 'Cynthia' is chartreuse, with outer petals heavily marked in red. 'Lady Jane' is white, with pink outer petals. 'Tinka' is creamy yellow; outer petals are rich red. Blossoms of 6-in.-high T. c. chrysantha are star shaped when fully open; they have yellow inner petals and rose-carmine outer ones. T. c. stellata (to 12 in. tall) is also star shaped when fully open; inner petals are creamy white, outer ones brushed in rich pink. Good in mild-winter areas.
T. eichleri. Foot-tall stems bear shining scarlet flowers with jet black centers outlined in yellow. Early.
T. humilis (T. pulchella). One to three pale pink or purplish pink flowers with a yellow center atop each 4- to 6-in. stem. Early. 'Violacea' has deep violet flowers, usually with a yellow base. 'Little Beauty' (T. hageri 'Little Beauty') has reddish-pink flowers with a bluish base outlined in white.
T. praestans. Up to six orange-red flowers on each 2-ft. stem. Midseason. 'Fusilier' is an improved selection growing 1014 in. high. Blooms of 'Shogun' (1012 in. high) are a yellow-and-orange blend with subtle red streaks.
T. saxatilis. Fragrant, yellow-based pale lilac flowers open nearly flat, are carried one to three to each 1-ft. stem. Early. Good choice for areas with mild winters.
T. sylvestris. Yellow, 2-in. flowers, one or two to each 1-ft. stem. Late. Good in mild-winter areas.
T. tarda (T. dasystemon). Each 3- to 5-in. stem has three to six upward-facing, starlike flowers with golden centers, white-tipped segments. Early. Good in mild-winter areas.
T. turkestanica. Fragrant, creamy white flowers with yellow centers. Borne on 6- to 8-in.-high stems, as many as 12 per bulb. Early to midseason.
T. whittallii. Star-shaped blooms in clusters of up to 4 combine shades of orange and yellow; center is nearly black. Grows 812 in. high. Early to mid- season. Good in mild-winter areas.