Heirloom Tulips

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

[hopefully you have your tulips planted now in the North as I post this late October. If not, do so soon. A question I often get is from whose who don’t get them planted, can they be planted in spring? Not really. Best is to get them in the ground in fall, or pot and force.]

You may be surprised to learn that many of the same elegant heirloom flowers that inspired “Tulipmania” in the 1600s, and appeared in paintings of the Dutch Masters at that time, are still available to plant in gardens today.

You can purchase many of these “time-traveling” tulips from garden centers and mail-order catalogs for fall planting to enjoy spring blooms. While some are identical to their ancestors, some are “look-a-likes” that replicate the historical varieties. The following list was compiled by the International Flower Bulb Center (bulb.com). It includes cultivars (cultivated varieties) that were introduced in the years between 1593 (when tulips first arrived in Holland) and the year 1750, or their modern-day ancestors.

Tarda tulip, 1590s. This multi-flowering botanical tulip has chrome yellow petals edged in bright white. The stunning, star-shaped blossoms open late in the season on sturdy six-inch stems. The variety is native to Turkestan and can be used in formal or naturalized plantings.

Rembrandt tulips, 1610. These are the famous mottled or “broken”-color tulips that launched a frenzy of trading, culminating in the near collapse of the Dutch economy in 1637. The era became known as “Tulipmania.” The tulips were called “Rembrandts,” stemming from the abundance of tulips in famous Dutch Master paintings in this era, which was known as the Golden Age of Dutch Painting. Curiously, tulips were not a prominent theme in Rembrandt’s own work.

The broken colors in Rembrandt tulips–no two were ever alike–were caused by a plant virus. Today, actual Rembrandt tulips are no longer available (they’re illegal), but you can buy one of the Dutch “look-a-like” varieties, a light color tulip with deep red, purple, or oxblood colored stripes or “flames.” Some popular modern-day cultivars include the purple-streaked white Shirley, the red-streaked white Sorbet, and the red-streaked yellow Helmar and Mickey Mouse.

Viridiflora tulips, 1700. These tulips have feathered green markings and streaks on petals of various colors. Recent viridifloras include Greenland (pale pink with flames and blushes of rose and pale green) and Spring Green (creamy white with blush green). Some tulips fit into another category as well, such as the lily-flowered Virichic (narrow pink petals flared out at the tips, streaked green), or the parrot-type Madonna (white, green streaks in petal centers, petals ruffled on edges as typical of the parrot tulips).

Keizerskroon, 1750. This is a single early tulip that grows to 13 inches tall. It is a distinctive red-edged-in-yellow flower with a nice scent. The single early tulips were the first, dating to the late 1500’s. A couple popular ones from this last century are Apricot Beauty and Purple Prince.

Clusiana tulip, 1802. The original red-and-white striped tulip species is no longer commercially available, but a similar one is Peppermint Stick, only 8 to 10 inches high. Then there is Cynthia (from 1959), light yellow with red on the petal backsides, or Tubergen’s Gem (from 1969) with gold instead of yellow.

To learn more about these “heirloom” tulips, and to find many more, Old House Gardens in Michigan has a resourceful catalog, newsletter, and website (www.oldhousegardens.com). They also carry heirloom summer bulbs for spring planting.

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