Debbie Arrington

Procrastinators can still dig into tulip mania

Tulipa turkmenistanica, originating in the dry mountains around Turkey, is both elegant and tough as nails.
Tulipa turkmenistanica, originating in the dry mountains around Turkey, is both elegant and tough as nails. TNS

What flower deserves a kiss? Tulips, of course.

I’m reminded of that little riddle because, in the spring ahead, that flower is bound to get extra affection. The National Garden Bureau recently declared 2018 “Year of the Tulip,” celebrating this delightfully diverse flower. But to truly enjoy coming tulip mania, you need to dig in now.

Bulbs planted in November and December will reliably sprout next spring. (Whether they bloom depends on a few other factors.)

And there are a wider range of tulip choices than you may think. According to NGB, tulips come in more than 150 species with 3,000-plus named varieties available to gardeners. Those species are broken down into 16 divisions from Single Early to Multi-Flowering (or “bouquet”).

Tulips have a finicky reputation in California, where it’s a little too warm for most of these easy-care bulbs to be totally self-sufficient.

No. 1: They need to be chilled. At least, that’s the rule for the big showy Dutch hybrids, the stars of the tulip world.

Except at higher elevations, Dutch tulips just don’t get cold enough in the ground in California to signal their internal clocks when to bloom. Gardeners get around this biological requirement by putting tulip bulbs in the refrigerator for six weeks before planting. The bulbs think they’re in snow-covered Holland and come out of the fridge, rearing to grow.

But some tulips don’t need that much cold. Native to southern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean and parts of Asia, tulips originally came from a climate not that much different than Northern California. It’s when they were hybridized by Dutch plant collectors that most tulips developed a need for more chill.

Species or wildflower tulips, as they’re often called, are closer to their Mediterranean roots, both figuratively and literally. They’re shorter than their Dutch counterparts with smaller flowers, but they can go straight in the ground in Sacramento without refrigerator time. They also can stay there – naturalizing over the seasons and multiplying into drifts – instead of repeatedly dug up and replanted.

They’re perfect for procrastinators. If you haven’t had time to put tulips in your refrigerator crisper drawer this fall, look for no-chill tulips such as Lady tulip (Tulipa clusiana), Candia tulip (Tulipa saxatilis), Florentine tulip (Tulipa sylvestris), China’s Tulipa tarda and Turkey’s Tulipa turkmenistanica. Plant them soon and you’ll still have appropriate blooms for the Year of the Tulip.

How to plant? That’s the easy part. Tulips prefer full sun but will tolerate partial shade. They need good drainage, but aren’t fussy about fertilizer. (A half-teaspoon of bone meal is plenty.) Then, it’s as easy as dig, drop, cover. Plant tulips in the ground or pots, about 6 to 8 inches deep; pointy end up. Cover with soil and top with mulch.

Then, wait. Just about the time when you’ve forgotten where you put them, those tulips will come up to bring spring smiles. And you’ll remember why 2018 is their year.

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