Bursting into beautiful, vibrant blooms each April, tulips have become synonymous with spring.
Tulips, or tulipa, are part of the lily family, Liliaceae. Although commonly associated with the Netherlands, their native range is actually in Central Asia and Southern Europe. Tulipa includes more than 100 different species, thousands of varieties, and flowers in many vivid hues.
The Missouri Botanical Garden’s collection includes beautifully curated annual displays featuring unique and historic varieties of these classic spring flowers.
Each fall, the Garden’s horticulture staff and volunteers plant about 80,000 tulip bulbs for the following spring. This typically includes more than 100 varieties carefully selected for special displays throughout the Garden.
Horticulturists consider color palettes and texture when designing each area. Colors are chosen to compliment each other, such as pairings of bold reds and yellows or a spectrum of shades of pink.
The bulk of the displays comprise single tulips, also known as triumph tulips. To add depth, staff add double, fringed, lily, and parrot tulips to accent the classic-shaped tulips. These unique varieties can also add a pop of whimsy to a spring bouquet or flower arrangement.
Timing is key, too. Tulips come in early, mid, and late blooming varieties. Staff thoughtful blend all three to stagger bloom times and extended displays, and to allow time to install annual summer plantings.
Tulips bloom in nearly every color, except true blue. Many of the more popular colors are even associated with different meanings: yellow is happiness, purple royalty and elegance, pink for well wishes, white is purity, and red romance.
While they may not have symbolic meanings attached, some more unique colors can really draw the eye.
‘Apricot Pride’, ‘Menton’, and ‘Daydream’ varieties of tulip come in shades of peach.
Viridiflora Tulips feature a green stripe on colorful petals in shades like pink, yellow, and cream.
‘Queen of the Night’ is often called a “black” tulip, although it is actually a deep burgundy. The dark color can offer a striking contrast to more delicate colors in a springtime landscape.
Tulipa ‘Red Riding Hood,’ a shorter hybrid greigii tulip, has stunning red blooms but its foliage is what really sets it apart: the light green leaves are streaked with a deep purple-red.
Most tulips in spring landscapes have been bred for many years specifically for large, colorful blooms. The Heckman Bulb Garden contains species tulips, wild relatives of traditional landscape tulips that tend to be more petite and offer more unusual blooms. Species tulips are more reliably perennial, and Garden staff are experimenting to see how well they perennialize in St. Louis.
T. linifolia has scarlet flowers with a deep purple base.
T. humilis are a rosy pink with a yellows center.
T. batalinii have bright yellows blooms with splashes of peach.
A bit of history
The cultivation of tulips dates back centuries, with the flowers serving as a symbol of the Ottoman Empire. The Garden’s collection includes some of the oldest known varieties that can also be found in the Heckman Bulb Garden.
Tulipa clusiana is one of the oldest tulips species, first recognized in the early 17th century. Also known as the “lady tulip” its flowers have slender form and delicate white petals.
Tulipa acuminata, which has flowers flamelike in shape and color, is reminiscent of the pointy-petalled tulips that were popular in the Ottoman Empire.
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Photos by Tom Incrocci, Claire Cohen, and Cassidy Moody