My recent post on red tulips was intended to make a serious design point about using tulips as complementary plants in perennial meadow planting schemes; what follows is more of a celebration of what this incredible flower has to offer.
Blue is a colour to be cherished in the garden, but rarely is it pure. Let’s take a look at a range of tulips that offer up this possibility.
Genetic manipulation is nothing new as the history of cultivated plants can testify. For centuries we have been busy selecting and hybridizing plants in order to create something different. The yield of crop plants has been a significant driving force as has the search for disease resistance, but also flower colours, shape and size have all been manipulated. Tulips did not escape our attention and their history is intrinsically the tale of attempts to breed and manipulate them to create ever more attractive flowers to decorate our homes and gardens.
What sets the tulip apart is a combination of the attraction of its simple elegant flowers and the wide range of stunning colours it manifests itself in. However, if it had not been for the instability of the genetic makeup of the tulip its glorious history could never have been written. Tulips, far more than most other plants, are prone to mutation. Spontaneously, they throw up new forms: some with altered flower colours, some with double the number of petals or forms with twisted and distorted petals. Such variations are called sports and it is these forms that have stimulated our interest in them by showing tantalizing glimpses of just what might be possible and encouraging us to start hybridizing them to create even more desirable combinations. The Turks became obsessed with etiolated tulip flowers during the glorious days of the Ottoman Empire, the French have had a long history of fascination with tulips, for example, prized double flowered forms used as corsages during the late 17th century, and, of course, there is the whole fiasco of tulipomania in the Netherlands caused by the extravagantly striped and streaked flowers of virus infected tulips.
Tulip breeding in the 20th century has focused attention on creating exciting coloured forms for mass bedding and cut-flower production. Today the Darwinhybrid Group in a range of predominantly red, yellow and orange forms is suitable for mass bedding displays and the Triumph tulips with their broad colour range are the staple tulip for both gardens and vase alike.
In spite of all the attention the tulip has received there still seems one goal that is unattainable; namely a truly blue flower. In spite of this we have all received nursery catalogues depicting bright blue tulips often accompanied by blue roses and sugar pink pampus grasses, none of which resemble their photographs in reality. Frustratingly, a true blue tulips seems as if it should be a possibility as there are species and cultivars that are clearly capable of generating blue pigments. These tints however, are always to be found at the base of the petals making up the flower’s basal markings and to date nobody has succeeded in breeding a flower where these pigments have been drawn up the petals to create an all blue flower.
The most exquisite example of blue basal markings is to be found in the small growing species Tulipa humilis Albocaerulea Oculata Group. This jewel like tulip is something for the rock garden or pot where its unique beauty can be cherished. On a larger scale the Triumph Group tulip ‘Negrita’ holds out yet more promise. Its flowers are a medley of rich glowing purples and violets and although at their base they fade to white, the petals also have small clear blue markings; from such a beginning the step to all blue should surely not be too great, but so far it seems to be.
The current situation has not stopped growers trying to persuade us that the blue tulip has arrived by the names they have applied to them. These so-called blue tulips are in reality shades of violet or mauve especially when viewed in strong sunlight. A favourite amongst these is one of the oldest, Single Late Group ‘Bleu Aimable’. The flowers are quite small in a shade of light lilac that in soft filtered light can look almost blue. Unfortunately, the vigour of this cultivar is declining and it is only rarely offered for sale. However, do not despair as its sport ‘Blue Parrot’ is vigorous and widely available, offering the same delicate hue and luckily this Parrot Group tulip’s flowers are not grotesque like others, but, rather, wavy and attractively crumpled.
‘Blue Pearl’ is another Single Late tulip in a pinker shade of violet purple with a tantalizing blue base and dark purple anthers. Such details are part of the pleasure of studying tulip flowers and can form the basis of developing mixtures with harmonizing colour themes.
Warmer tints are to be found in the flowers of the Triumph, ‘Blue Champion’ and the Double Late Group tulip ‘Blue Diamond’. Essentially these are shades of purple infused with pink and would be strong enough to be used on their own as a single colour theme or mixed and blended with other tulips in shades of violet and purple. ‘Blue Diamond’ is the double sport of the Triumph ‘Prince Charles’. Obviously the two will complement each other perfectly, but this could become the starting point for a scheme in which Triumph and Single Late tulips in the purple violet colour range are added: ‘Negrita’, ‘Bleu Aimable’, Synaeda Blue, ‘Cum Laude’, ‘Greuze’ and ‘Recredo’ are just some of the possibilities.
Lilac Perfection’ is another gardenworthy late double in the similar colour of soft lilac that fades to white towards the centre of its flowers. The colour is clear and much closer to blue than many.
The Fringed Group tulip ‘Blue Heron’ is a tough reliable garden tulip, but its colour is too violet purple for me to think of it as blue. Likewise, the Triumph ‘Synaeda Blue’ (see photograph above behind Tulip ‘Negrita’) has an exquisite complex flower; the violet purple petals fade through shades of lilac to white both towards their edges and bases, while the base is overlaid with a clear star shaped yellow marking. Both are tulips to add to our bulb orders, but don’t think of them as blue when deciding where to plant them.
The blue tulip may never be with us, but the ranges of tulips aspiring to the name are certainly not to be despised. They offer a spectrum of sophisticated hues and tints that tend to harmonize with each other; they can be blended with pinks and reds or they can be used to set up exciting colour contrasts with other colours in the spring garden such as yellows and oranges if you dare. What’s in a name?