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Tulip Foliage: Part 1


Judging by my garden reading, not many people think of tulips as a foliage plant. Yet when I photograph tulips, I find myself being seduced away from even the most beautiful blooms, to the soft curves, wild twists and soft luminescence of foliage. Even the first tiny spears can be a gardener’s delight of anticipation.

Tulip foliage is out well before the blooms, before there’s much happening in most gardens; shouldn’t we welcome it for its constantly-unfolding show? It obliges us even in snow, lighting up the white with sturdy green spears


although even without the snow, the first green, green rabbit-ears poking through the old leaves are a sign of hope:


Not all tulip foliage is green, though, at least not in all its stages.

At first I was going to say I’ve only known two tulips whose foliage noses emerge ashy red: ‘Couleur Cardinal’, a scented heirloom tulip from 1845 (either a Triumph or a Single Early, depending on who’s doing the categorizing), and ‘Formosa’, a chartreuse lily-flowered tulip, fresh off the Netherlands breeding fields.  Although I’m no authority, it seems unlikely that a late-blooming lily-flowered tulip would have much ancestry in common with  a Triumph, beyond the bare facts of their being tulips. So I didn’t know why they both showed this characteristic.  My first I thought  had been that ‘Couleur Cardinal’ foliage might somehow have taken some of the color of its flowers, an embarrasingly medieval notion.


But Formosa blasted that theory (if it deserves the name of theory) by showing up like this:


(The little tongues coming out of the middle are the flower buds. If your tulips don’t show this, that means you will have no flowers this year – and that you need to split up your bulbs and/or give them a lot of phosphate and possibly calcium.)

As so often happens when you start looking for something, I noticed that the early foliage of Dreaming Maid (a Triumph tulip) had a red tinge, too, at least on some of them:


It isn’t just the new little noses poking out of the ground that are colorful. Older tulip foliage has reds and pinks, too – plus a couple of other things worth taking a look at.  For those of you who haven’t had enough (I may be talking to an audience of one: myself), I’ll take a look at older foliage in the next post.

{ 10 comments… add one }

  • Racquel March 7, 2009, 5:44 pm

    I agree the foliage of tulips should get some credit for their persistance when everything around them is still hibernating. I’ve never the reddish coloring before, thanks for sharing. :)

  • cyd March 8, 2009, 6:33 am

    I love the tulip noses too. Your pictures are beautiful. I’m wondering if this is a good time to fertilize? My tulips are looking about as far along as yours.

  • Jan(ThanksFor2Day) March 8, 2009, 10:49 am

    I have them popping up too, and some have reddish tints to them. I also just put in the ground some tulips I bought in a flat, the bulbs had sprouted, the stem and flower there but not yet opened. SO, I’m hoping they’ll show well this spring (as in, quite soon!), and then, I’m hoping they will come up again next year.

  • Pomona Belvedere March 9, 2009, 11:23 am

    I’m glad I’m not the only person interested in tulip foliage! We may be a select number.

    Here’s how I’m fertilizing my bulbs this year: an application of dry fertilizer (high phosphorus, low nitrogen, with mycorrhizae of course) in fall, and actually another one would probably be good about now. For foliar feed, I’d wait until there’s more foliage than in these pictures, but I think ideally it happens before and after flowering. I also added some calcium to the dry fertilizer mix this year. Right now my big concern is keeping up with the Deer Off, since deer sense when your bulbs and shrubs have grown that extra inch or two beyond the bad taste.

    Spring bulbs are very forgiving, luckily for us! I have about a dozen small bulbs I shamefully did not plant, one of which is even trying to flower, poor thing. Usually after such a trauma the bulb has to recuperate for a year or two, and only puts up foliage. With full fertilization, or luck, this rest period might be shortened.

  • cyd March 9, 2009, 2:39 pm

    Hi Pomona, You are too right about the deer. I had some snowdrops blooming and now I don’t. I am going too try a homemade remedy before they get my lovely tulips too.

  • Sylvia (England) March 10, 2009, 5:39 am

    Pomona, count me in, I like tulip foliage as well. Considering how late some of them flower the leaves are early. My late April flowering tulips all start to show leaves at the same time as the other spring bulbs. Thank you for the reminder to feed these, I do forget to feed bulbs. I must give my snow drops something this weekend, now they have finished.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  • Pomona Belvedere March 12, 2009, 4:15 pm

    Cyd, I’d be interested to know what your homemade remedy is, if you care to share it. Sylvia, glad to know I’ve persuaded you to the tulip foliage side.

  • cyd March 12, 2009, 5:19 pm

    Hi Pomona, I’d be happy to share. Combine in a blender , one whole egg, a few tablespoons of cooking oil,one tablespoon hot chili oil, a tablespoon of liquid soap with one quart of water. Blend and put in a spray bottle, spray every 5 to 7 days. I did this as well as brushed my dogs and tucked the fur in the bulbs that are up. I haven’t had any return visitors but we did get about 5 inches of snow and then a hard freeze. I’ll hope for the best. Thank you for your interest. I’m really enjoying your posts.

  • Daffodil Planter March 14, 2009, 1:59 pm

    Pomona, I have now taken against my tulips that do NOT have colorful foliage–see what you have done? And I spend so much time peering at tulips noses and tongues, puzzling over the potential flower buds, that I feel like a botanical otolaryngologist!

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