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Return of the Tulips


One of my garden correspondents from the UK writes that Prince Charles has given up on planting tens of thousands of tulips every year along the drive at–I forget which dwelling. Instead, he is substituting fritillaries, which come back year after year.

What a lot of people don’t know is, that if you plant the right varieties, tulips are very likely to come back year after year. Most of the ones that come back are species tulips (types that are selected from the wild and cultivated), so they don’t look like the typical florist’s tulip. But they can be appreciated on their own merits.

There’s a caveat here, though: no matter what variety of tulips you plant, if they don’t have good drainage (especially in summer, when they would have a dry spell in their native haunts), tulips will rot instead of flowering.

That taken care of, here are categories of tulips with a good return rate.

Fosterianas or “Emperor”  – Purissima, or White Emperor, is the tulip at the head of this post; it’s the size of a typical garden tulip.  One of my tulip books says they had a stand that lasted twenty years; I had a stand for several years, until I dug it up; they didn’t like the new location as much.  ‘Sweetheart’ and ‘Apricot Emperor’ show every sign of lasting as long, but ‘Flaming Purissima’ went down for the count after one season with me (twice). ‘Red Emperor’ is a selection of the wild species, so it should be persistent–but I haven’t grown it.


Batalinii  – The tulips above are the ‘Apricot Jewel’ variety–there are several of these tall, species-like tulips in various shades of yellow, peach, and rose. In full sun they are about as tall as most garden tulips, but the flowers and stems are much slimmer. In semi-shade they flop rather appealingly on whatever other foliage you have going on.

Greggi – These are short tulips with mottled foliage and many varieties of color in the rose/pink/white/yellow spectrum. They bloom in tulip midseason.

Kaufmannia – These early bloomers are also known as water lily tulips, because their short-stemmed flowers open out like stars. The flowers are disproportionately large for their stem size, and come in various hybrids in the red-and-white spectrum.

Cluisana-type  –  A real clusiana is hard to find, but it’s easy (and cheap) to get ‘Lady Jane’, below. These trouble-free tulips are about ten inches high, and last well in the garden or vase.




Be sure to check out the species section of your bulb catalogue (or nursery) for more possibilities. Species bulbs are usually cheap, so it doesn’t cost much to experiment a little.

Some other older garden varieties of tulips seem to come back well, too: ‘Prinses Irene’ and ‘Insulinde’ have been good repeaters for me. ‘Crème Upstar’ was for a while, then petered out.  If anyone’s had good results getting other varieties of tulips to come back, I think a lot of us would like to hear about it–maybe even Prince Charles.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Zoë November 23, 2008, 2:19 am

    I think the Fritilliaries will look better, especially if he choses the native F. meleagris aka The Snake’s Head Fritilliary. It is also the same colour as the tulips he was growing in the spring meadow planting he had along the drives, and I it think will look more natural too.

    I love tulips but I am not sure if in this case it was a case of right plant right place, the snakes head ( if thats what goes in) certainly will be.


  • Pomona Belvedere November 24, 2008, 2:53 pm

    I didn’t know snake’s head fritillaries were native to the UK. I think they are wonderful, and especially being native it does seem they’d be a more natural candidate for a meadow. (I just got some F. meleagris alba, and while I was trying to find out how to treat them, I read that they like water meadows).

    Glad to have another educated opinion on this matter!

  • Zoë November 24, 2008, 3:37 pm

    Yes, they like damp places that don’t dry out in summer – I’ll try and dig up some photographs of such a meadow – theres one at Cambridge University which I think may be well documented. I’ll mail you back soon. In hospital again on Weds, so it may be a few days.


  • Pomona Belvedere November 25, 2008, 4:45 pm

    Thanks for the info, Zoe–I wasn’t quite sure how moist snakehead fritillaries like to be (I’ve never seen a snake whose head looks like them, either). I planted some of my F. meleagris with some alpine strawberries, where they will get part shade and some water. And I planted the rest in with my hardy (or at least so they say) alocasia, where it will get lots of water and a bit more sun.

    Best wishes for your hospital visit, may it go smoothly and bring good results.

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