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Tulipa turkestanica (probably)


At last, a real species tulip.

Ah, but which species? We’ll leave the botanical brangling until later. First, a description.

This is the smallest tulip in this series. It doesn’t just come up to your ankle; it comes up to your ankle bone.

It’s the earliest tulip, too. In full bloom by mid-March, even the first year of planting, it’s ahead of some of my narcissus. It’s a native of Central Asia, where it blooms on rocky mountain slopes, by streams, and on rock ledges. By which you can guess that it’s a tough customer for soil as well as weather.


As you can see, the bees love it; they really have to look for those early flowers. And I loved the way it folded up at night: the tight buds looked just as they did before they’d opened.


After it had faded, I read that T. turkestanica has an unpleasant scent. As you can see, I got pretty close to them in order to take the bee picture; I didn’t smell anything. On the other hand, scent’s a chancy thing, and I didn’t bury my nose in them to check.

I planted these tulips in a container with later, bigger ones. The combination worked well; small early tulips bloom and die off while the bigger-tulip foliage covers them up with new green. This is a lot better than those combination plantings where the small bulb blooms last, amidst crackly sere foliage. (That would be a poetic way of saying dead.)

Now for the Department of Botanical Brangling. This tulip is, certainly, a tulip that is found in the wild, in this form as well as similar others. (Bulbs often vary in the wild, and tulips, as we know, are deeply given to variations.)

Anna Pavord says that T. turkestanica has a horrible smell, while T. biflorifomis, a look-alike species, has a faint odor of honey. Implying that they are two distinct species. She does mention some variations in turkestanica types she looked at: some with broad leaves, others with narrow.

Janis Ruksans collected some of these bulbs in the Turkestan mountains. He refers to this tulip throughout his book as the T. bifloriformis/T. turkestanica complex, and says that a lot of work still has to be done to make out the real difference between the two.

Anna Pavord has done her research, not only on paper but going out in the field. Janis Ruksans has spent decades not only collecting plants in the field and noting their slight differences from habitat to habitat, but then growing and propagating them in his nursery, where he has opportunity to see them up close and personal. He’s definitely not a lumper by nature, as his book and catalogue descriptions detail the different subspecies with minute precision.

So I’m going with Ruksans, although I mean no disrespect to Pavord. As far as I can see from here, he has access to more primary-source information, and he’s not talking through his hat. (Wherever did that expression come from?) I’m not going for the T. turkestanica/T. bifloriformus¬† judgement to the extent of retitling this post, though. Life is too short.

Do any of you have an opinion on this?

Whatever their exact botanical designation, these tulips have been blooming for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. They have been in commerce so long that the nursery-grown versions are quite cheap. (I hope all of you are checking to be sure that you never buy wild-collected bulbs. It decimates the populations when they are collected in bulk, instead of carefully selected for propagation.)

If you want quick, early color and cheer from a tulip tiny enough to grace your windowsill, give this species – whatever that is – a try.



Anna Pavord, The Tulip, Bloomsbury, 1999

Janis Ruksans, Buried Treasures, Timber Press, 2007

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • tina May 12, 2009, 5:17 pm

    It sure is sweet! Reminds me of T. linifolia. I have no idea where that saying ‘talking thru his had’ come from. A neat one though.

  • Cyd May 12, 2009, 5:30 pm

    Another stunner. The like the way you have your pots arranged to look like mass plantings. I got The Tulip from my library today. The illustrations are wonderful.

  • Pomona Belvedere May 13, 2009, 9:49 am

    Tina, yes, I haven’t grown T. linifolia but I’ve seen pictures and they do look very similar to this. I think I’ll get some T. linifolia next year to compare.

    Cyd, I’m rather pleased with the mass-pot-plantings effect myself. Big pots, all of the same height shoved into a group – simplicity itself to do. The Tulip does have great illustrations.

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