Species Tulips, Hardy Little Gems

by Diane Engles, HAS Trustee

Tulipa Kaufmanniana Ancilla
Photo Credit:  Thesupermat / CC BY-SA

When we think of tulips, we tend to think of the tall, showy Dutch hybrids. However, the earliest known tulips were discovered growing wild in central Asia and Turkey.  These showy little natives were introduced into Holland in the 16th century, and careful breeding over generations has produced the hybrids that we see on the market today.

The species tulips deserve their own place in our gardens. They are extremely hardy — some to zone 2; they naturalize well, and open wider than the hybrids to allow pollinators to collect their nectar and pollen. They are shorter than the hybrids and they look great in the front of borders, as naturalized drifts, or in rock gardens.

Species tulips have a wide range of colors and many are fragrant; some have multiple blooms per stem. A bonus with some of them is foliage that is beautifully mottled and striped, lending interest when not in bloom. There are many species readily available including kaufmanniana, batallini, and tarda to name a few.

The Gregii tulip (Tulipa gregii) originated in Turkistan. Many cultivars have been produced since its introduction in 1872. Gregii tulips grow 8-12 inches tall and have beautiful mottled and striped foliage. Some have multiple flowers up to 4 inches wide per stem. When open in full sun they attract pollinators. Gregii tulips are are most effective planted in groups of 10-15 bulbs.   All are hardy to Zone 3.


Pinocchio Public Domain Photo

Pinocchio (Tulipa humilis ‘Pinocchio’has ivory white blooms marked with scarlet flames and a bronze heart. It blooms in early to mid spring and naturalizes readily increasing the show over the years. It grows 6-10 inches tall.


Red Riding Hood Photo Credit:  High Country Gardens

Red Riding Hood (Tulipa humilis ‘Red Riding Hood’) was introduced in 1953. Still very popular, it won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Merit in 1993.  Its purple mottled leaves are beautiful on their own. Red Riding Hood’s bright scarlet blooms reveal a small black heart when open. It grows 6-12 inches tall and blooms mid-season.


Tulip Toronto Photo Credit:  Denver Botanic Garden

Toronto is also award-winning and one of the most popular of all Greigii Tulips. It has multiple flowers on one stem featuring tangerine-red petals tinged bronze-green at their bases Toronto looks great underplanted with Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa luciliae).  It blooms mid-season.


Another species of note with many cultivars is Tulipa humilis, which hails from Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Iran, and the North Caucasus region of Russia. Its preferred habitat is rocky mountain slopes. Many cultivars are lilac and purple as is Persian Pearl.

Persian Pearl Photo Credit:  High Country Gardens

Persian Pearl (Tulipa humilis ‘Persian Pearl’) is diminutive growing only 4-6 inches tall. Its blossoms are showy purple-red with a yellow center. Persian Pearl naturalizes easily and is hardy to Zone 3. It blooms early to mid season.


Blue Eyed Tulip Photo Credit:  High Country Gardens

The Blue Eyed Tulip (Tulipa humilis ‘Alba Caerulea Oculata’) steps outside the purple zone featuring fragrant white blooms with blue eyes. It grows 6-8 inches tall and is hardy to Zone 3. It blooms early to mid season.





Finally I’ll mention Tulipa clusiana, the Lady Tulip. It is an Asian species native to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and the Western Himalayas. It is widely cultivated and has reportedly naturalized in parts of Europe, Greece and Turkey.

Lady Jane Photo Credit: Thomas Pusch / CC BY-SA

Lady Jane tulip (Tulipa cluisiana ‘Lady Jane’has blooms of rosy reddish-pink, edged in white; the flowers open to a white interior giving this variety a delightful candy cane look.  Lady Jane grows 12-14 inches tall, and blooms mid to late season. It is hardy to Zone 3.


Cynthia Open in the Sun Photo Credit:  Author

Cynthia (Tulipa cluisinana ‘Cynthia’)  has won the Royal Horticultural Society’s award of merit. Her exterior petals are red, edged in chartreuse and open to a chartreuse-yellow interior.  Cynthia grows 8-10 inches tall and is hardy to Zone 3.


These smaller species tulips are well worth adding to gardens large and small to provide beauty and food for pollinators in springtime.