All About Tulips

Care and How To

Tulips (Tulipa spp.) are the quintessential spring blooming bulb.  The wide range of colors, sizes, and patterns make them a spring favorite for Iowa gardeners.  Learn more about these fascinating plants, including information on planting, caring, transplanting, dividing, and forcing, as well as information on how to select the best kind of tulip for your garden, how to deal with problems that may arise, how to use them as cut flowers, and the unique history and cultural impact this bloom from the mountains of central Asia has on gardeners.


Types  |  Selection  |  Perennial or Annual  |  Growing Conditions  |  Planting  |  Care  |  Transplanting & Division  |  Cut Flowers  |  Forcing  |  Potential Problems  |  History  |  FAQs  |  More Information


Large planting of diverse tulipsSpecies, Classes, Divisions, and Types

Tulips are favorites of Midwest gardeners, but we often fail to appreciate the diversity of these spring-flowering bulbs.  Tulips vary tremendously in flower and plant size, bloom period, shape, and color. 

Learn about all of the different types of tulips available for your garden in this article: Types of Tulips for Home Gardens.


Selection

Select Tulips from Different Divisions for a Long Bloom Period

Tulips have a wide range of sizes, colors, and bloom times. Plants can be as short as 4 to 6 inches and as tall as 30 inches when in bloom.  While red is a classic tulip color, flowers may also be pink, white, yellow, purple, orange, and many shades in between.  Petals can have solid colors or patterns in contrasting colors.  Bloom times vary as well with some tulips blooming early in the spring season during and or just after the daffodils open to much later in the season along with lilacs and other mid to late spring blooms.  With proper selection, you can have tulips in bloom in your garden from early to mid-April until mid to late May, depending on the spring weather conditions. 

Tulips interplanted in a perennial borderSelecting High-Quality Bulbs

When purchasing tulips, select only firm, solid bulbs for planting. Avoid bulbs that are shriveled or lightweight. Bulbs discolored by mold or containing soft spots should also be avoided.  Size matters when selecting bulbs. The bigger the bulb, the better the flower display. Smaller bulbs often bloom, but you get more bang for your buck with larger ones.

Spring-flowering bulbs can be purchased as early as late August.  Often for the best selection, you have to shop early.  Tulip bulbs purchased in late summer should be stored in a cool, dry place (such as a garage or basement) until they can be planted in fall.


Perennials or Annuals

Most modern tulip cultivars bloom well for only 3 or 4 years. These include the popular, large-flowering tulip divisions like single and double early, single and double late, triumph, parrot, and fringed types.  Their vigor declines each year, eventually leading to plants with leaves and no blooms.  For this reason, these tulip types are often treated as annuals.  They are planted each fall with the intent of replacing them.  After bloom, bulbs can be removed and composted.  The following October, new and different cultivars can be planted to provide a completely different show the following spring.

However, some tulip types (classes) bloom well over a longer period.  These varieties make better long-term additions to the garden and will bloom each season reliably. Learn more about the best perennial-type tulips in this article: The Best Perennial Tulips for the Home Garden


Red and yellow tulips in part shadeGrowing Conditions

Light Requirements

Tulips should be planted in a full-sun location, but they can tolerate part-sun locations well. Early blooming varieties are often successful beneath a high-branched deciduous tree because they usually flower before the tree fully leafs out. After the bulbs have finished flowering, many can tolerate the light shade from trees.

Soil Requirements

Tulips require well-drained soils. Poorly drained or wet soils often cause decline and rot, making them short-lived in the garden. Amend poor soils before planting by incorporating organic matter, such as compost or peat. Many species-type tulips grow very well in the sharp draining soils of rock gardens.

Planting Arrangement & Companion Plants

Plant tulips in clusters or groups to achieve the greatest visual impact in the garden. When planting larger varieties, plant at least five or more bulbs of the same variety in an area.  Often groupings of 10 or more look the best. Smaller growing types should be planted in drifts of at least 25 bulbs and looks best in groupings of 50 or more bulbs. Bulbs planted alone or in rows do not look as good in the garden as large sweeps or drifts of color. 

Consider planting tulips amongst ornamental grasses, hosta, daylily, and other perennials that will grow up later in the season and hide the foliage of the bulbs as it yellows. Select a location where their early blooms can be seen and appreciated, such as along commonly used walkways or near the front door. 


Planting 

When to Plant 

October is the ideal time to plant spring-flowering bulbs like tulips in Iowa. This allows bulbs to establish and develop good roots before winter. Planting bulbs too early in the season, in September when soil temperatures have yet to cool, may cause foliage to emerge in the fall. Procrastinators can plant tulip bulbs as late as December if the ground remains unfrozen.

planting bulbs with a drill and bulb auger
Using a drill and bulb auger can make planting individual bulbs easier.

Planting Depth

Plant bulbs at a depth equal to two or three times their maximum bulb diameter. This means planting at 6-8 inches deep for the larger varieties. The smaller varieties, like Kaufmanniana, Greigii, and species type, are often planted 3 to 5 inches deep. Larger bulbs can be spaced 4-6 inches apart, while a 3-4 inch spacing is more suitable for the smaller bulbs.

How to Plant

Once the location has been determined, dig a hole to the appropriate depth and set bulbs in the ground with the pointed end up. Backfill with soil and water the area to help settle the soil around the bulbs and provide plenty of moisture for root growth, especially if soils are dry. Avoid overwatering, as tulips do not tolerate wet conditions well.

Fertilizer 

While not typically necessary, fertilizers can be used at planting. These fertilizers are more important for developing next year's bulb than for the upcoming spring flowers.  If using fertilizers, apply all-purpose fertilizers, such as a 5-10-5, at 2 to 3 pounds per 100 square feet and work it thoroughly and deeply into the soil before planting. A good organic fertilizer for bulbs is bonemeal with its high phosphorus content. Apply 3 to 4 pounds of bonemeal per 100 square feet. Alternatively, you can work one tablespoon of bonemeal into the bottom of the planting hole. Bone meal is often slower acting and more expensive than the other fertilizers.


Care

After blooming, proper care of tulips through the remainder of spring and early summer helps to insure repeat performances in succeeding years.

Deadhead After the Bloom Fades

Remove the flower heads on tulips as soon as the petals drop. This prevents the plants from expending large amounts of energy in fruit (pod) development. 

White and pink tulipsFertilizing

After blooming, two to three pounds of a 5-10-5 or similar analysis fertilizer may be applied to 100 square feet of bed area. To prevent burning of the foliage, wash off any fertilizer which remains on the leaves. Control weeds which compete with the plants for water and nutrients. Often hand weeding is most practical.

Leave the Foliage Until it Dies Back Naturally

The foliage of tulips should not be removed until it has died and turned brown. The time it takes the foliage to die back depends on the tulip variety, growing conditions, and weather. It may not be until late June or early July in some years. Premature removal of the plant foliage stops bulb growth and often reduces the number of flowers next spring.

Remove Tulips Growing as Annuals Immediately After Flowering

Varieties that are not good long-term perennials in the garden are sometimes treated as annuals.  These tulips can be dug from the garden immediately after the flowers fade, typically in mid-to-late May.  Compost the foliage and bulbs and plant the area with summer annuals.


Transplanting and Division

If you want to transplant tulips, wait until the foliage has turned yellow and begins to die. In most years, this is early to mid-June. Once dug, bulb clumps can be separated into individual bulbs or smaller clusters of bulbs.  It is often easiest to replant the bulbs in their new location immediately.

If they can't be planted immediately, the bulbs should be stored until fall. Once dug, thoroughly dry the bulbs for 2 to 3 weeks. Then place the bulbs in mesh bags and store them in a cool (50 to 65°F), dry place until fall planting. Inspect the bulbs several times during the summer and discard any which show signs of decay.


Tulip just beginning open
Cut tulips for cut flower bouquets just as they begin to show color but are still closed.

Tulips as Cut Flowers

Tulips can make excellent cut flowers.  Cut flowers when the petals just begin to show color before they are completely colored or open.  Cut stems as low in the foliage as possible and place them immediately in a bucket of clean water with floral preservative.  If stems wilt or flop over in the bucket, support or straighten them.  Any curved or bent stem will remain that way even after fully rehydrating. 

Place in a cool bright location indoors.  Most blooms will last about one week.  Unlike many other cut flowers, the stems of tulips continue to elongate even after harvest.  This means flowers placed in arrangments can be as much as six inches higher after 5 to 7 days. Remove, recut, and replace blooms in the arrangement if they no longer look good because of their taller height.  

For longer stems, the entire plant, bulb and all, can be carefully pulled or dug from the ground.  Once removed from the soil, cut off just above the bulb, remove leaves, and clean soil from stems before placing in a bucket of clean water with floral preservative. The leaves and bulbs can be composted after flowers are harvested.

Blooms can be stored for up to one week in clean water with floral preservative at 35°F.  


Forcing 

Tulips are excellent bulbs for forcing out of season, bringing bright colors indoors during winter or adding beautiful blooms to containers in early spring.  

Forced tulips in a container
Forced tulips are great for spring containers.

Plant bulbs in containers in the fall and provide 12 to 15 weeks of cold temperatures.  Once potted blooms are removed from the cold treatment, blooms form in 2 to 4 weeks.  Tulips are usually discarded after forcing. They will not bloom again when planted outdoors and attempts to force them again are usually unsuccessful.    

More detailed information on forcing tulips can be found in this article: How to Force Spring-Flowering Bulbs Indoors.


Potential Problems

While easy to grow, tulips do occasionally develop problems.  Early emerging foliage, browsing from deer and rabbits, and bulb rot are a few common ones. 

Learn more about the potential problems encountered when growing tulips in the landscape and how to manage them in this article: How to Manage Potential Problems Growing Tulips.


History

The tulip has had a significant impact on the culture and economics of Europe.  The story of how a small flowering bulb from the mountains of Central Asia made its way to Western Europe, particularly the Netherlands, is interesting and incredible!  

Introduction to Europe

Tulips are a naturally growing species in Central Asia and were first cultivated by the Turks as early as 1,000 AD. The flower was introduced in Western Europe and the Netherlands in the 17th century by Carolus Clusius, a biologist from Vienna. In the 1590’s Clusius became the director of the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden. He was researching medicinal plants and while doing so, he received some bulbs from his friend Ogier Ghiselain de Busbecq, the ambassador of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). The ambassador had seen the beautiful flower, called tulip (presumably after the Turkish word for turban), grow in the palace gardens and sent a few to Clusius for his garden in Leiden. Clusius planted them, and this was the start of the amazing bulb fields we can see today in the Netherlands.

Tulipmania

A Satire of Tulip Mania by Brueghel the Younger (ca. 1640)

A Satire of Tulip Mania by Brueghel the Younger (ca. 1640) depicts speculators as brainless monkeys in contemporary upper-class dress. In a commentary on the economic folly, one monkey points to flowering tulips while another holds up a tulip and a moneybag, others appear in debtor's court and one is carried to the grave. Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of the 17th century, the tulip was starting to be used as a garden decoration instead of for medicinal purposes. It soon gained major popularity as a trading product, especially in Holland. The interest in the flower was huge and bulbs were sold for unbelievably high prices. Botanists started hybridizing the flower and developed even more decorative and tempting specimens. Hybrids and mutations of the flower were seen as rarities and a sign of high status. The flower became popular because of its bright colors, dramatic flames, and frilly petals. To have tulips in one’s home was a way to impress. This encouraged even the middle class to take part in the business. They saw how much money the upper class got from the commodity and thought this was an easy way to make money with little risk. The bulbs were usually sold by weight while still in the ground. 

In the months of late 1636 to early 1637, there was a complete "Tulipmania" in the Netherlands. Some bulbs could cost more than an Amsterdam house at this time. The traders made huge amounts of money and people started to sell their businesses, family homes, farm animals, furnishings, and dowries to participate. Because of the limited access and high demand, the government could not do anything to stop the trade.  Over time supply went up, and with the tulip no longer quite so rare, it couldn't command such high prices. Over-supply led to lower prices and dealers went bankrupt. This "Tulip Crash" made the government introduce special trading restrictions for the flower.


FAQs

tulips in a perennial garden


More Information

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Aaron Steil Consumer Horticulture Extension Specialist

Aaron Steil is the consumer horticulture extension specialist at Iowa State University where he works with county Extension offices across the state to answer home gardening questions for all Iowans.  This includes information related to trees, shrubs, vegetables, fruits, herbs, perennials, ...

Last Reviewed: 
April, 2023
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