Each year I grow about 20 different sorts of tulip. Once I thought I'd be able to grow every tulip that existed before I died. I don't think that now, though at least I've grown nearly all the growable species. Fabulously difficult things like Tulipa regelii are only for the gods at Kew. T. regelii grows wild in Kazakhstan and has the most extraordinary leaves, pleated and crimped along their length like the silk of a Fortuny gown. Tony Hall, one of the Kew greats, could grow it, and once I happened to be there when it was flowering – a rarer delight than seeing a snow leopard.
Meanwhile, I plug on with the big ones, hoping always to find another name to add to my list of all-time greats. At the moment, I'd say these are my 10 best garden tulips:
A Triumph tulip, about 45cm (18in) tall, blooming in early April. The flowers are a soft, creamy-white, flushed round the edges with mauve. The same mauve is stippled lightly over the surface of the petals. Inside, the flower is a wonderfully surprising base of peacock-blue surrounding a big, crinkled, cream stigma and coal-black stamens. The flowers are short-cupped and wide-petalled, in the manner of the old English florists' flowers. This is an elegant, complex tulip, a reasonable substitute for the sublime 'Magier'. It was first introduced in 1968. Sprinkle seed of love-in-a-mist round the bulbs for a later show of summer flowers.
A Triumph tulip, about 35cm (14in) tall, blooming in late April. A remarkable flower of soft orange, flamed on the outside of the petals with purple and hints of green. It's the complex flushes of subdued colour on the bright orange ground that makes this tulip so exceptional. Introduced in 1949. Use it with Sedum telephium 'Purple Emperor' and Euphorbia polychroma.
A Single Late tulip, about 60cm (24in) tall, blooming in early May. A wide-spreading flower, not blue – one of the few colours a tulip cannot produce – but a soft, gentle mauve-purple, the complexities of which improve as the flower ages. It is one of the best of this range, unsurpassed since the flower was first introduced almost 100 years ago. Use it with sweet cicely and the elegant Hosta 'Krossa Regal'.
A Parrot tulip about 50cm (20in) tall, blooming in early May. Bright, rich, orange-red flowers with green flecks flaming out from the backs of the petals. The buds are exceptionally long and open into stupendous, scented flowers. It does not have the excessively wild form of, say, 'Weber's Parrot', but is one of the best of this group, though not for the faint-hearted. Introduced in 1930. Try it with the giant fennel (Ferula communis) which comes usefully early into leaf.
A Double Late tulip about 60cm (24in) tall, blooming in late April. With its greyish foliage and inky flowers, this is a stunning tulip, with strong stems – as they need to be. It's at least as dark as 'Queen of Night' (of which it is a sport) and there's a lot of green on the outside petals. Introduced in 1984 and an instant winner. Use it with pale lemon wallflowers.
A Triumph tulip about 35cm (14 in) tall, blooming in mid-April. This opens into a lovely, sandy, orange-brown flower, which gets paler and browner as it ages, losing its orange underpinning. Some gardeners shy away from orange but this is a gorgeous shade, subtle and sympathetic. A darker bronze drifts down the top of the stem. Broad, squareish petals make a short, flat-topped flower that opens into a cup in the sun. The texture of the flower is particularly good with veins slanting either side into the petal's midrib. Like many orange tulips, it is sweetly scented. Gorgeous against the rich, green, early foliage of Geranium maderense.
A Viridiflora tulip about 48cm (19in) high, flowering in late April. It has a good, strong stem, grows bolt upright, though is reluctant to open up in sunshine. The creamy-white petals have a broad green flame up the centre, very prominent on the outside, showing only as a faint green stain on the inside. It's an oldish tulip, first introduced in 1969, but has always been popular. It fits itself in to all kinds of mixed plantings and stands up well, even in bad weather.
A lily-flowered tulip, about 55cm (22in) tall, flowering in early May. It produces an elegant, rather small flower with very pointed petals in sunset shades of orange and red, netted together in an indistinguishable way. Outside, the flower is flamed with blood-red on a lemon-yellow ground with orange-yellow veining on the edges of the petals. The inside is a brighter red, feathered with marigold orange. At the base is a buttercup-yellow star smudged with pale green. The buds are tall, thin and very beautiful, the foliage greyish and not too heavy. Though at first glance you might dismiss the flower as plain orange, it is far more complex: elegant, fine-boned and scented, which is a bonus. This is the only orange among the lily-flowered tulips, raised in 1980 by JF van den Berg & Sons. Try it with Euphorbia pithyusa or E. cyparissias 'Fen's Ruby'.
A Parrot tulip about 40cm (16in) tall, flowering at the beginning of April, earlier than most other Parrots. It produces an exceptionally pretty flower; although the petals are ragged, it keeps its overall form, unlike madder, more puckered parrots. The bloom is a soft, greyish-white, lightly washed over with grey, blue and mauve. The blue is most noticeable at the base of the flower, the pinkish mauve at the edges of the petals, all very light and delicate. This is an extremely elegant tulip, a sport of 'Pax', selected by AP Molnaar in 1986. Try it with a grey-leaved hosta such as 'Halcyon' or set it between clumps of Helleborus 'Silver Dollar'.
Generaal de Wet
A Single Early tulip about 40cm (16in) tall, in bloom early April. Known since 1904, it produces sweetly-scented, very variable flowers with red netted in various quantities and strengths over an orange ground. The red, running in veins over the backs of the petals, also gathers in a fine fringe on their edges. This is a wonderful tulip, light-limbed, thin-stemmed, the petals finely-textured compared with modern varieties. Try it with seedlings of bronze fennel.
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