The days are longer, and – joy of joys – we have our evenings in the garden back again. It really feels like summer could be just around the corner. The planting of bulbs last autumn is bearing fruit, so to speak, as spring flowers jostle for space in pots and borders, with elegant tulips taking the crown in terms of colour range, height and sheer ‘wow’ factor.
Of course, the delight we take in our tulips these days is nothing like the passions they inspired when they first appeared in Europe, having been imported here from the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey). Originally wild flowers of central Asia, they started to be cultivated around 1000 A.D., and became a much-used motif in the art of the region. The distinctive shape of tulips appeared on carpets, embroideries, tiles and carvings, and of course they were prized in the gardens of the time. Monty Don in his TV series ‘Paradise Gardens’ explored how the tulip is still cherished today in Turkey; you can watch a clip here.
But it was when the tulip was introduced to Europe that the status of these distinctive flowers escalated from ‘prized’ to ‘exalted’. Tulips were first sent to the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, the Netherlands’ oldest botanical garden, in the 1590s, and as they were bred, fabulously coloured hybrids began to appear. The Dutch obsession with the flower grew, peaking with the ‘Tulipomania’ of 1636-7, when famously a single bulb could change hands for more than the cost of a house in Amsterdam.
Happily, tulips these days are infinitely more accessible, and with a wide variety of colours, forms, shapes and fragrances available, there’s plenty of scope to enjoy these unique, elegant and joyful blooms, so very emblematic of spring. Here are a few of our favourites.
Queen of Night – there’s really not much that can match this deliciously dark tulip for adding drama to your planting. It’s not new, having been around since the middle of the last century, but it remains as popular now as it ever was. It’s ideal for bringing contrast to planting schemes, creating an ideal foil for brighter colours, and it looks at home in modern minimalist environments as well as more traditional gardens. What’s more, although Queen of Night looks exotic, it’s remarkably easy to grow.
Ballerina - a zesty sunset orange/red with a beautiful lily-type shape, to bring a welcome shot of colour to the garden. It’s true, its citrus hues aren’t for everyone, but there’s no denying that the blooms look super-striking. They look especially fabulous if the garden trend of recent years for corten steel features or decorations has made it to your garden; Ballerina’s colours beautifully pick up the warm tones of the metal’s weathered finish. Best of all, though, is the fragrance; often described as mandarin or tangerine, it’s a gorgeously sweet scent.
Oviedo – a delicate fringed tulip, in shades of white and lilac. It almost looks like ice crystals are forming on the edges of the petals, and it’s absolutely enchanting in a planting scheme with a cooler palette. At up to 50cm it’s quite tall, and it’s very striking indeed when underplanted with a froth of blue or mauve flowers, like forget-me-nots or pulmonaria.