How to prepare for and cultivate top tulips in France

Tulip lover Cathy Thompson on planning ahead and finding a cultivar to suit.

4 September 2020
Tulips in the grass.Tulips are explored in the Connexion September gardening column.
By Cathy Thompson

Do not be caught out, as I was in 2019. Late August to early September is the best time to order your tulips for 2021, even if it is not the right month to plant. Although there are good suppliers in France, the prices tend to be steep and so I order from Dutch companies.

Top types of tulips

It is fun to try out one or two new cultivars each season and, since they flower the best in their first year, I have a ‘bedding out’ area of the garden where I put the new bulbs. Allowing my imagination to run wild, I combine two contrasting colours: in 2020, dark purple-black ‘Paul Scherer’ and fringed blue-lilac ‘Blue Heron’.

‘Brown Sugar’ was the one that got away because I had already missed the boat in late September 2019. I mourned it, entranced as I had been by internet reports of its charms – a beautiful burnished orange, with tinges of red and violet, and – best of all – a scent! After they have flowered, I dig them up and take them down to a wild grass slope (strimmed twice a year) at the bottom of the garden. There they often continue to flower year on year, although the flowers are smaller and (some would say) more elegant.

Elsewhere in garden borders I try to use ‘persistent’ or perennial tulips (Peter Nyssen has a good list of these at www.peternyssen.com). In the distant past I grew the pink lily-flowered tulip, ‘China Pink’ with dark purple ‘Queen of the Night’. I planned to add these to my new garden here in France, but was too late the first year. Stock of the favourites disappears quickly.

Eventually I added both, but they have not been nearly as determined in Lorraine – still flowering pleasingly, but not in the great masses I wanted. Maybe they will work for you? So what have I found to be ever-returning? Apart from the reliable Apeldoorn cultivars, the best have been yellow lily-flowered ‘West Point’, ‘Sorbet’ (deep pink and white striped) and ‘Pink Impression’ (with a pretty bronze flush to the petal backs). Just make sure you plant them where they get a good baking during the summer, rather than in a border you water regularly.

If you are looking for tulips that last year after year, try the species tulips. Though delicately fragile in appearance, they are generally tough as old boots! First choices have got to be the yellows, such as small Tulipa tarda (no higher than 15cm) and similarly small T. batalinii (try ‘Bronze Charm’ or ‘Bright Gem’), as well as taller, more graceful T. sylvestris.

Keeping tulips healthy

For a palette of red, slender Tulipa acuminata and T. whittallii, as well as the bolder cultivars of T. praestans (such as ‘Fusilier’) cannot be beaten. Recently I have been indulging in the lady tulip, Tulipa clusiana, with very slender flowers, delicious in combinations of pinks, whites and yellow. Try ‘Lady Jane’ or more strongly yellow ‘Cynthia’. If you are ordering species tulips, you can plant on receipt of your bulbs. For the taller, classic tulip cultivars it is best to wait until November, because the colder weather means the dreaded ‘tulip fire’ (Botrytis tulipae) is less likely to spread.

This is a wretched fungal disease that causes the bulbs to produce distorted and shrivelled leaves that spoil the fresh effect of an April display. Check that any new bulbs you buy are firm, healthy and unblemished, but otherwise there is really nothing you can do about it except to remove the infected bulbs, burn them and refrain from planting tulips in the same position for three years, since the fungal spores persist in the soil.

I did that the first year I suffered, but now if the disease shows up I tend to cut the affected foliage off to ground level. Although I do have a tendency to sloppiness, I’ve never had very bad results again.
Other tulips to pleasure you? ‘Carnaval de Nice’ produces double candy-cane flowers, striped deep pink and white. It comes back every year in this garden and is perfect as a cut flower, especially if you give the vase a dark background to show off its ‘Old Master’ classiness.

‘Angelique’ is another pretty double marshmallow pink for cutting; although it did not persist with me, a blogging friend grows it in long grass where it comes back each year. This year I grew a tulip called ‘Love Dance’, in greens and reds, with very pointed, slender petals. It too was perfect as a cut flower and aged beautifully in the border, giving me about a month’s worth of pleasure.

‘Rococo’ is a simply dazzling parrot in reds and purples with a touch of yellow; in bud the crimped edges make it look almost prehistoric! Each flower is so fascinating that I like to grow it in pots near where I sit in the evening. ‘Couleur Cardinal’ is red, flushed luscious violet and similarly deserving of intimate acquaintance in a pot.

Over to you

What is your favourite persistent tulip? You can send and email to Cathy at editorial@connexionfrance.com

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