Miss Floribunda: Which tulip bulbs will bloom year after year?

Soft floral background with tulips, selective focus

 Dear Miss Floribunda,  

I am getting old and arthritic and planting bulbs in the fall is getting to be a chore I don’t want to continue for many more years. I have been planting naturalizing varieties of daffodils, snowdrops, iris reticulata, squills and grape hyacinths, which are quite lovely. But my favorites are tulips because to me they are the monarchs of the spring garden. Which varieties will come back year after year?

Creaky on Crittenden Street

Dear Creaky,

Your monarchs have an august history indeed, and many of them are named for royalty. In the 17th century they were so highly prized that financial speculators inflated their cost to the point where only the wealthiest could afford them. The tulip was the favorite flower of Louis XIV. Then the bubble burst, with consequences analogous to that of the stock market crash of 1929, or more recently to the housing market crash in 2008. Eventually, tulips could be found in the most humble cottage garden. But wherever they are, they bring a regal presence.

I consulted the retired head of landscaping at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, DC, Brother Florilegius. He told me that he routinely planted 10,000 tulip bulbs a year there and always had them dug up and replaced because he found that very often even those that repeat don’t come back “true.” But for your own garden, he recommended the faithfully repeating species tulips (Tulipa humilis), which are very close to the original wild tulips of Iran and Turkey and are about the only tulips that don’t appeal to deer. They bloom very early, just after the crocus, and, though short-stemmed, come in gorgeous colors. His favorites are the magenta Persian Pearl and the more pastel Lilac Wonder.

Other pretty repeaters are the early-blooming Kaufmanniana tulips. These are called water lily tulips because of their shape, but their range of color and color pattern is wider, as proved by the striped red-and-yellow Pinocchio. For more imposing and long-stemmed early-blooming tulips, try the Fosterianas, especially the huge-cupped Emperor varieties: Red, White, Orange and Yellow Emperors. Double varieties like Monte Carlo and Bonanza have large, spectacular blooms like cabbage roses, but the stems are very short.

A little later come Greigii tulips, such as the adorable scarlet Red Riding Hood and the two-toned Clusiana tulips, which include charmers like the red-and-white Peppermint Stick and pink-and-white Lady Jane. For April-blooming tulips that are tall and more majestic, Florilegius recommends the Darwin Hybrids, especially the Apeldoorn group and the Triumphs — the easiest of tulips to find and available in the widest variety of colors and color combinations. Triumph tulips, a variety of the Fosterianas, will often bloom into mid-season as well. Unfortunately, the spectacular parrot and peony tulips, which bloom in late April and May, rarely repeat. If you plant them, just enjoy them while you can. Or better, plant real peonies to take their place in May.

However, Brother Florilegius confided that almost no tulip (with the exception of the species and the Apeldoorns) will repeat for more than seven years unless you take precautions not to let the bulb send up new mini-tulips. If you see shoots, you should dig up the tulip bulb, remove the offsets, and replant. Also, you should deadhead the tulips after blooming and not let seed pods form. However unsightly it seems, the foliage should be allowed to die back to let energy return to the bulb. On the other hand, he says, almost any variety of tulip will last for several years if you are vigilant about removing offsets and seed pods, if you feed them each autumn, and if you plant them in the sun. Evidently, the solar energy going back into the bulb makes it good to go for another season.

For more suggestions, and to share your own experience with other bulbs, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 19. It will be held at the home of Jerry and Elizabeth Marshall-Burgess, 3500 Taylor Street, Brentwood.