Again with the species tulips

T. dasystemon

Yes, every year is the same; I go on and on about these understated members of a show-off plant group. The fact is, I still don’t see these used enough.  They come up about the same time as daffodils (most of them) and provide reliable spring color at a time it’s needed most. They have cool names—sylvestris! turkistanica! vvedenskyi!—that I find much more interesting than “Blushing Beauty” or “Big Smile” (as worthy as these hybrids are).

Species tulips are said to perennialize better; I am not sure I can speak to that. I refresh my plantings on a yearly basis and can testify that I have seen varieties like t. clusiana and t. dasystemon persist and maybe spread over at least ten years. But, again, I’m always planting; that’s the reality one must accept with tulips of any kind.

These erythronium (another favorite) are complemented by mostly nonflowering greigii foliage.

And they’re not always dainty. T. vvedenskyi has big flowers that age very interestingly into large red claws. Tulips that I group with species, as they are also quite early, are the greigii cultivars. Even catalog verbiage can’t praise these enough. My front garden never gets the baking that all tulips—but especially hybrids— need, so, too often, after a couple years, I get  foliage and no flowers. Not a problem with some of the greigii, as this group produces foliage that’s almost as striking as its blooms. Maybe just as.

T. acuminata, toward the end of its bloom cycle

Finally, one of the species, t. acuminata (said to be a 1813 introduction), can compete with allium vineale ‘Hair’ for weirdness. Anna Pavord calls it “spidery and mad,” and I agree. It’s also one of the last tulips of any kind to come up, further setting it apart. I’ve taken pictures of it in June.

Species tulips are lower in visual impact but they’re also lower in foliage; it tends to be minimal and it declines quickly. My goal is to have a front garden filled for a few weeks with every different type. I’m not there yet.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. You have no arguments from me. Species tulips are the only tulips that will return every year in Texas–or at least that I know of.

  2. NO WAY!! I love tulips, but so do the squirrels, chipmunks, moles, voles, deer and rabbits. AND I have to plant them every year?? There are far too many other options who don’t suffer these drawbacks. Then again, I garden for a living, so my perspective is not one of the home gardener…

    • They do not belong to the very limited group of deer-resistant plants, but they are lower to the ground for the most part. I know many who grow them in deer country, but I imagine the usual precautions are necessary.


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