Finding that silver lining

By Lynette L. Walther | Sep 22, 2016
Courtesy of: Old House Gardens Heirloom tulip ‘Elegans Rubra’ may well be a survivor from the early 1700s. Tulips and other spring bulbs should benefit from this summer’s weather, preferring dry soils.

Not many would disagree that this has been a wicked dry summer in Maine. Even my gardening friends in Canada have complained about the lack of rain there. Nothing like a dry summer to make gardeners sympathize with those folks out in California going on five years of drought.

While this may have some area gardeners thinking about researching the finer points of rain dancing or Zeriscape and planting drought-tolerant gardens, there is one item already in most local gardens that will actually benefit from our dry summer. And that is all our spring-flowering bulbs. Nothing defeats flowering bulbs faster than soggy soils.

It’s true, bulbs prefer it dry. Just look at where tulips and their cousins grow naturally, the arid mountainous areas of the Iberian Peninsula, through North Africa to Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, throughout the Levant (Syria, Israel, Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Jordan) and Iran, north to Ukraine, southern Siberia and Mongolia, and east to the Northwest of China, according to Wikipedia.

I, for one, am expecting a spectacular display next spring from all my bulbs already in the ground. It kind of takes the sting out of a summer of frustration waiting for rain that never came. So enthused am I about the prospect that I am increasing my bulb order for even more blooms now that I realize the benefit of a summertime of dry earth for spring flowers. This knowledge will also dictate exactly where I will place those new bulbs in the coming weeks, just in case we get a wet summer next year. I’ll be planting bulbs in those high and dry spots with good sun exposure.

And I’ll situate clusters of different varieties of bulbs at the bases of deciduous shrubs. Last spring I noticed that those bare branches cried out for a colorful display, and offered the perfect backdrop for bulbs. Once those shrubs begin to fill out they will effectively help hide the fading bulb foliage.

According to one of my favorite sources for dependable heirloom bulbs, Old House Gardens (, in addition to well-drained soil (improve clay soil or try raised beds), plant bulbs where they get good sun, fertilize regularly and allow foliage to ripen to yellow to recharge the bulbs for future years. OHG also recommends planting bulbs six to eight inches deep.

Older bulb varieties perennialize best, having been bred for gardens, not for the pot or cut-flower market. "Perennialize" means that the tulips, narcissus, crocus or other spring-flowering bulbs will produce blooms year after year, often multiplying (naturalize) planted bulbs as the years go by. Choosing “species” tulip varieties that are planted in favorable conditions is a reliable way to have bulbs that will perennialize and naturalize.

Most narcissus and crocus varieties provide years of blooms when planted in favorable conditions. However, when it comes to tulips — the true stars of spring displays, with blossoms in a rainbow of colors and forms — repeat years of bloom are usually not realistic. That is, unless species varieties are planted.

Among the choices on my order this year is the quirky fashionista of species tulips, "Acuminata," with red-tipped yellow petals. This spidery choice is estimated to have originated in the early 1700s, when “stilletto-petaled tulips like it were all the rage in the Ottoman Empire.” At 20 inches tall, this cold-hardy (Zone 4b-7a), late-blooming tulip is sure to make a colorful statement in the spring garden for years to come.

"Florentine" is another of my choices. It is a violet-scented, clear yellow species tulip with small almond-shaped blooms that nod in bud and open wide in the sun. This one dates to 1597, and was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. OHG’s catalog description suggests that this species tulip that is eight to 14 inches tall in bloom, can possibly “naturalize like a weed.” I don’t know about you, but I would be delighted to see a swath of these little gems take over come spring.

One variety of species tulip that has graced my spring display for years is the delicate "clusiana," with rosy red and white “peppermint sticks” of small blooms. It grows to about a foot tall, and will spread slowly as the years go by when planted in well-drained soil with full sun.

Another one on my list to plant this fall is "Elegans Rubra." With its almost savage beauty, this bright, dagger-petaled tulip was listed as a wild species in 19th-century catalogs. Though never found in the wild, it may well be a survivor from the early 1700s, when tulips much like it (and T. acuminata) ruled in the lavish gardens of the Ottoman Empire, according to the OHG catalog. This spectacular, lily-flowered tulip grows to 16 inches tall.

Though not a species, "Lac von Rhine" is a very rare survivor from the days of Tulipmania in the 1630s. This single-early, crown-shaped tulip of burgundy and ivory was once sold for enormous sums. Today it may still seem expensive – but what else can you own from 1620 that costs so little, asks the OHG catalog description. And with good care, this stunning 14-inch-tall tulip will multiply.

Any or all of these selections would work well in a naturalistic landscape or a formal one. as well. And they are sure to provide plenty of springtime cheer and color to any planting scheme next spring and for years to come. There is another benefit of planting and growing these heirloom bulbs. Often these older varieties fall by the wayside in favor of flashier, newer blooms, sometimes disappearing forever. But by growing them we can help save these heirlooms in our gardens. They truly can be the silver lining in our shared “cloud” of a dry summer.

(And yes, there still is time to order bulbs!)

The heirloom species tulip ‘Acuminata’ is sure to spice up any spring bloom display for years to come. (Courtesy of: Old House Gardens)
‘Florentine’ species tulip dates to 1597, and was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Like all tulip bulbs, this sweet yellow tulip does best in well-drained soils with full sun exposure. (Courtesy of: Old House Gardens)
Species tulips like this ‘clusiana’ perennialize, and will slowly spread when planted in suitable conditions. (Courtesy of: Old House Gardens)
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