The truth about tulips

Shock, horror. Tulips come not from Holland, but from Central Asian hillsides. Anna Pavord plants the real thing
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The tricky thing about being a gardening correspondent is that from time to time you find yourself ignoring your own advice. "Go with the flow," I keep saying. "Grow the things that will like your soil." And what have I spent this year doing? Trying to turn a corner of sticky Dorset clay into a Kurdish hillside. There, on a memorable trip, I once saw sheets of wild tulips pushing through the shale. I went to sleep on a rock in the sun on the side of one of the hills and, when I woke up, there was a wolf sitting looking at me. It was very odd - Angela Carter stuff.

Seeing those tulips growing where they were intended to grow made me realise what a shock to their system it must be, coming to Britain. There is practically no earth on those hills, just sheets of grey scree. However much grit I dig into the sunniest corner of the bank in our garden, it is not going to drain fast enough for the tulips' liking. But will this baking summer have made a difference? It will be interesting to see whether the little collection of species tulips I have been building up in the Kurdish corner flowers better this coming spring because of it.

The species are hanging on to life more successfully than I thought. They are not increasing - the true sign of a happy plant - but they are not disappearing as fast as most garden tulips do here. Planting the bulbs seven or nine in a plastic half-pot and plunging the whole pot in the ground is certainly more successful than any other growing system I have tried. This may be because the plastic fazes underground slugs, which like tulips even more than I do. And, planted this way, the bulbs can easily be lifted when the foliage has died down. The pots can then be laid on their sides in a cold frame so that the bulbs can bake through the summer.

The heartland of the tulip is not Holland, as their growers have almost made us believe, but Central Asia. There are also about 14 different species in the mountains of Turkey, but Brian Davis, who wrote the monumental Flora of Turkey, reckons that only about four of these are natives. The rest, he thinks, were probably introduced from similar habitats further east and became naturalised, particularly along old trade routes. A few species such as Tulipa biflora and T cretica have also settled in parts of southern Europe.

I have not grown T biflora but it was one of the tulips we saw in Turkey, on a bare hillside not far from Hosap on the Iranian border. There was just one solitary specimen waving in the wind there, with a torrent of goats pouring down the mountain towards it. My husband bent over the tulip like a croquet hoop to protect it from the flock, while I slid down the scree to find a camera. To survive during a period of galloping inflation, herdsmen in Turkey have had to run more and more sheep and goats on the hillsides and, from what we saw, it seemed this was having a far greater effect on bulb populations than unscrupulous collectors.

At the best of times, T biflora is not what you would call a sturdy tulip, but it can never have looked frailer than it did on that bare hill, with several hundred animals bearing down on it with intent. It has several greyish-cream flowers balancing on a four-inch stem - not showy, but, like all tulips, complex when seen close up. The buds are urn-shaped, but in sun the scented flowers open out to flat stars of white petals with yellow blotches at the base. The grey wash is on the outside of the petals. A Victorian enthusiast, writing in the Royal Horticultural Society's journal in 1887, called it "the most persistent tulip in cultivation". That sounds promising. It will be on the bulb order I am making up at the moment.

Last season's newcomer on the Kurdish corner was T eichleri, which actually comes from Transcaucasia and northwest Iran. "Excellent, showy, neatly conformed," says the note in the book where I keep a record of all the tulips I plant. It is as different from shrinking T biflora as could possibly be. It has enormous scarlet flowers that open out to a wide-mouthed bell, all the petals flicking out at the top to give the tulips a curvaceous waist. The petals on the inside are glossily polished, and the outer surfaces are buff, especially the three outside petals, so the bright red scarcely shows when the flowers are in bud. Then the flowers open, pow! and you are reaching for your sunglasses.

When the tulips have finished - the species generally bloom earlier than the big garden tulips - you have to work out some kind of planting for the rest of the year that will not smother the bulbs by the following season. Violas are excellent and this season I have been experimenting with lobelias among them.

Two of the lobelias have been outstanding. The trailing rich-blue L richardsonii is tender, like the lobelias used for bedding, but you can propagate it by cuttings taken in autumn. It would be equally good planted in a window box or spilling out of the side of a trough, for it flowers all through summer and autumn until it is stopped by frost. The second hit has been the little double-flowered lobelia called "Kathleen Mallard", a neat, compact plant - perhaps more compact than it should be this year, for it has obviously not been enjoying the heat.

At the moment, the best-looking plants on the patch are two clumps of a grass, Pennisetum villosum, with heads of flowers like crazy cream caterpillars, the kind that have hairs sticking out all round them. It is the sort of grass that looks just like... well, grass, until it flowers, when it is hilarious, but its home is northeast Africa and it is not reliably hardy. It likes full sun and the Kurdish corner is one of the few places it can get it.

Of all the tulips that I grew last year, "Marilyn" was the one that stayed longest in flower. "Too boudoir for us," say my notes, "but a good tulip. Very showy, especially when splayed out in the sun. Nicely marked flower, with a deep-pink flame licking up the centre of each petal."

It grows nearly two feet high and has rather larger flowers than other lily-flowered tulips I have grown. They started in early May and were still there in mid-June, by which time the Salvia turkestanica around them were zooming up into flower. In a formal setting the white and pink "Marilyn" would be better than it was where I had it, but it needs plenty of cooling neutral foliage round it to stop it going over the top.

It would be good in pots, as was the fringed tulip "Maja", an elegant, rather restrained tulip, exactly the same colour as the pale yellow peony with the impossible name. It is an acid yellow, the flower neatly egg- shaped with tidy, crisp fringing along the tops of the petals. Tulips have many tricks. In the dark privacy of their underground caverns in eastern Turkey, there will be tulips right now inventing stunts that we could never dream of.