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In Season: Tulips

In Season: Tulips

By Nita Robertson, AIFD, CFD

Common Name: tulip

Botanical Name (Genus): Tulipa

Family: Liliaceae (lily)

Floral design by Irina Gurina

The tulip is a bulbous spring-flowering plant. In the flower industry, it is sold both as a cut flower and in plant form (potted bulbs). Tulips are a quintessential symbol of spring, but, today, tulips aren’t limited to just spring. These amazing cut flowers are available year-round, thanks to innovation and technology as well as global resourcing. Tulip bulbs, on the other hand, bloom in the early spring outdoors but can be forced to bloom indoors during the winter season. 

Tulips are known for their range of colors, including bicolors and multicolors as well as their graceful cup shapes. The blooms of single-flowered tulips have three petals and three sepals, but because the sepals are almost the same size and shape as the petals, the blooms appear to have six petals.

Tulips are grouped into at least 15 classifications, six of which are commonly grown as cut flowers:

• single flowered (Single Early Tulips)

• double flowered (Double Early Tulips)

• peony flowered (Double Late Tulips) 

• lily flowered (reflexed pointed petals)

• parrot (feathered petal edges)

• fringed (fringed petal edges; varieties can be single or double flowered)

“French” tulips are not a class of tulips; instead, they are hybrids of Single Late Tulips varieties, prized for their long stems and large blooms. Sun Valley Floral Farms, in Arcata, Calif., perhaps the largest grower of cut tulips in the U.S., has branded its line of French tulips “Redwood Grove”—a nod to the tall, strong trees that inhabit the central and northern California coast.

Tulip History

Tulips are intriguing flowers with a rich history. The name “tulip” came from the Turkish word tulband, meaning turban. Tulip were originally wildflowers growing in Central Asia, and they were first cultivated by the Turks as early as the 10th century. 

Tulips were officially introduced into the Netherlands at the end of the 16th century. In the Netherlands, there was a sense of exoticism to these imported flowers that looked like no other flower native to the European continent—so it is no surprise that tulips became luxury items. The bulbs’ value increased as the popularity of tulips in Holland grew. They were considered a rarity and commanded enormous prices that only the wealthy could afford. The infamous “Tulipomania” or “Tulip Mania” (Tulpenmanie) was a rush on tulip bulbs from 1634 to 1637 as speculators bought tulip bulbs hoping to resell them at high prices—often 10 times what an average working-class man earned in a year. In 1637, too many speculators sold at once, and the tulip market crashed. Although Tulip Mania ended, the love for tulips in the Netherlands was deeply rooted and grew into a huge commercial enterprise. Today, the Netherlands is the largest producer of tulip bulbs worldwide, exporting about 3 billion bulbs per year.

Cut Tulips

Floral design by Watered Garden Florist; Raleigh, N.C.

Tulips look fabulous in a vase, either on their own or combined with other spring flowers. These colorful blossoms are commonly displayed as monobotanical vase arrangements because they are so stunning and elegant on their own. But they are also frequently used in mixed spring arrangements and hand-tied bouquets as well as in landscape, vegetative and botanical design styles.

Care for cut tulips by giving them plenty to drink! They are thirsty blooms. Trim each stem end at a 45-degree angle, and place into a vessel containing bulb flower nutrient solution, such as FloraLife® Bulb Food Clear 300. To extend the life of cut tulips, recut the stems and change flower food solution every couple of days. Also, keep them out of direct sunlight and away from heat.

Interesting characteristics of cut tulips include that fact that the stems continue to elongate after being cut, up to an inch or more. They are also geotropic/gravitropic, meaning that they respond to the force of gravity (always growing upward, regardless of the angle of the stems). In addition, tulips are heliotropic/phototropic—stems bend toward the light. Flower designers must consider both of these factors when arranging tulips because the blooms can continually change positions! 

Tulips are also photonastic, meaning that their blooms close at night and when there is little or no light available, and they reopen when the light returns. 

In the case of droopy tulips, you can carefully wrap floral wire around the stems, from top to bottom; keep in mind, however, that the stems will continue to elongate and bend toward sources of light. Of course, for a natural or artful look, downward curving stems may be just what you are after.

Another tulip design trick is to reflex their petals, gently curving the petals backward, either partially or entirely. This can dramatically alter the look of the blooms.

Nita Robertson AIFD, CFD
Floral design by Renee Tucci, AIFD, CFD, PFCI

Planting Tulip Bulbs

Plant tulip bulbs in the fall for blooming in early spring. Here are some tips on planting tulip bulbs outdoors and caring for potted tulip bulbs.

Store bulbs in a cool, dark place until you are ready to plant. The best time to plant them is from late October through November—or even in December before the ground freezes for winter. Plant bulbs 6 to 8 inches deep (or about three times the height of the bulb). Set the bulb in the hole with the pointed end up. Cover with soil, and press the soil firmly. Be sure to plant tulip bulbs in a sunny area with well-draining soil (tulip bulbs rot in standing water). Water bulbs thoroughly after planting, and then wait the beautiful, colorful blossoms to emerge in the spring.

Tulips always look their best the first spring after planting. When soil and growing conditions are ideal, some tulips may bloom for multiple years, but in most cases, you will get smaller blooms and, possibly, no blooms at all. For best results, remove the bulbs from the ground after they finish blooming, and plant new bulbs each fall.

Tulip bulbs can also be easily rooted and grown in water, in jars or special bulb-forcing vases. When growing in water, make sure that only the very bottom of the bulb comes into contact with the water, and then only until roots start to develop, which can then dangle into the water.

SunValley

Tulip Fun Facts

1. Tulips are edible! Provided that a tulip is grown without the use of pesticides and other harmful chemicals, many parts can be consumed.

Tulip petals can be eaten raw or cooked, but they lose much of their color when cooked. Depending on the species and the size of the blooms, tulip petals can exhibit many flavors, including those similar to cucumbers, peas and beans, and they can be crunchy or chewy. Petals can add color and texture to earthy garden salads, and blooms that are harvested young make delightful edible cups for decadent desserts or stuffing with meat and/or vegetables.

Tulip bulbs are also edible, but their centers must be removed. Fresh young tulip bulbs are palatable and prized for their sweet milky flavor, and they can be cooked and eaten similarly to potatoes. In fact, during World War II, when the Netherlands suffered an intense famine following the Battle of Arnhem in 1944, eating tulip bulbs became a necessity. 

2. At one point in history, tulips were the most expensive flowers in the world. In the Netherlands, from 1634 to 1637, tulips were a rarity and a luxury, and it is said that a single tulip bulb cost almost 10 times what an average working-class man earned in a year. This period of rabid tulip popularity became known as “Tulipomania” or “Tulip Mania.”

3. Tulips are native to central Asia. It wasn’t until 1594 that the first tulip bloomed in Holland, after the famed Flemish botanist, Carolus Clusius, director of the University of Leiden’s Hortus Botanicus botanical garden, planted some tulip bulbs that had been sent to him from Turkey. Clusius observed these fascinating new plants closely, and it was he who discovered how to cultivate varieties with multicolored and feathered petals.

4. These beautiful flowers are related to another popular bulb flower: the lily. The Tulipa genus is a member of the Liliaceae family, which, in addition to Lilium, also comprises AspidistraConvallaria (lily-of-the-valley), EremurusFritillariaGloriosaHostaHyacinthusMuscari and Ornithogalum—among scores of other genera.

5. Tulip stems continue to elongate after they have been cut. They are also geotropic/gravitropic (always growing/stretching upward); heliotropic/phototropic (bending toward the light); and photonastic (blooms opening and closing depending on the presence of light).

SOURCING CUT TULIPS

• Sun Valley Floral Farms; tsvg.com

• Holland America Flowers; hollandamericaflowers.com

• Florabundance; florabundance.com

• Mayesh Wholesale Florist; mayesh.com

Sun Valley Floral Farm

SOURCING TULIP BULBS

Bloomaker; bloomaker.com

Van Engelen Wholesale Flower Bulbs; vanengelen.com

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