Gardening with Tulips by Michael King

Red Tulips, Green Garden

Red tulip flowers have dramatic impact in spring when surrounded by their complementary colour green and tulips in whatever colour have to be the ultimate complementary plants to add to a perennial meadow and awaken your gardener’s spirits in early, mid and late springtime.

Apart from true black and blue, tulips are available in a host of colours: some pure, many complex and some will have two or more colours combined in streaks, stripes or splashes. Their colours might be used to harmonise with other plants flowering in spring such as pink cherry trees, blue grape hyacinths, bushes of yellow forsythia and corylopsis or drifts of yellow and white daffodils and the tulips, in any hue, stand ready to set up colour contrasts with all of them. However, red tulips, more than any other, have the potential for creating the greatest spectacle of all in the open garden as their complementary colour, green, arrives fresh and bright to flood the garden canvas.

Tulip 'Roulette' Triumph Group
Tulip ‘Roulette’ Triumph Group

It was in early May, some fifteen years ago, that I discovered the true potential of tulips. I grow many late season perennials such as rudbeckias, heleniums, vernonias and asters and in a border I called my grass prairie they were mixed with a selection of Miscanthus sinensis cultivars and other warm season grasses. From August onwards this border was full of colour, texture and all of the excitement ornamental grasses can bring to the garden, but in spring it was green; many shades of green maybe, but still very green. However, when I had the idea to plant a hundred ‘Red Shine’ Lily-flowered Group tulips in-between the clumps of perennials there, this border suddenly acquired a second season of interest. The strong contrast of red and green caused my neighbours to stop and make admiring comments, but what I realised was that with just of few easy bulbs I could flood not only my grass border but the whole garden with colour to create a seasonal highlight before many of the other plants I grew got into their stride.

Tulip 'Red Shine' & 'Elegant Lady' Lily Flowered Group
Tulip ‘Red Shine’ & ‘Elegant Lady’ Lily Flowered Group

Since red is so effective we should consider using it more positively in our spring plans and when we harness the full range of tulips, both species and cultivars, this is possible from spring’s earliest days until its end when roses are ready to take over the baton and introduce their own, more mature mood to our gardens.

This is just one of the ways I discuss the use of tulips in my book Gardening with Tulips and which will guide you to the best cultivars and species and encourage you to spend far too much money on these exiting bulbs than your bank manager will be happy with.

Gardening with Tulips by Michael King

Should you visit the Keukenhof exhibition garden in the Netherlands when it opens in late March, early spring, you will find that the park is predominantly green with a calm that precedes the explosion of colour that will soon follow. At this time, one red tulip is repeated around nearly every turn to sensational effect. This is the Kaufmanniana Group hybrid ‘Showwinner’, one of the so-called waterlily tulip which flower in early spring with large open flowers on short stems; their manner of opening in sunshine earning them their nickname. They are clearly indispensable as, together with the equally early-flowering ‘Stresa’ in yellow and red, ‘Showwinner’ is capable of making a convincing show for the first of their visitors. Flowering so early, however, Kaufmanniana tulips all run the risk of being damaged by bad weather, and all too often I have seen the Keukenhof display browned and shrivelled by hard frosts and drying winds. ‘Showwinner’ reacts by losing its radiant glow and its colour darkens, and it is worth looking at only as a splash of colour in the distance. In our smaller gardens, we can still exploit the early season of ‘Showwinner’ by growing it in pots and giving it protection when the weather turns nasty.

Tulip 'Showwinner" Kaufmaniana Group
Tulip ‘Showwinner” Kaufmaniana Group

The next spectacular red to flower is the well-known Fosteriana Group tulip ‘Madame Lefeber’, which is sometimes erroneously called ‘Red Emperor’. Its large fiery red flowers open to reveal a bold black base edged in yellow. The colour of this species was unrivalled when the first bulbs were imported into Holland in 1906, and ever since it has been used in breeding programmes with great success. As the stems are not really strong enough for the heavy flowers, to avoid disaster in rain and wind grow her in a sheltered corner, with maybe an evergreen background for a truly spectacular display, albeit ephemeral and quite likely short lived.

Together with Kaufmanniana and Fosteriana tulips, the Greigii Group tulips are often referred to as Botanical Tulips, a term that suggests that these are selections of the wild species or hybrids that still bear a very close similarity to them. All are vigorous, tough and capable of becoming permanent perennials within our garden borders. Red-flowered Greigii Group tulips offer the bonus of broad purple-streaked leaves. ‘Red Riding Hood’ is a favourite with many gardeners and ‘Margaret Herbst’ is taller with extremely large bold flowers. I feel it is best to grow these in pots, leaving the space in your borders free for bold displays of the later-flowering varieties.

Tulip 'Long Fellow' Gregii Group
Tulip ‘Long Fellow’ Gregii Group

By mid season, the choice of red-flowered cultivars explodes with the commencement of flowering of the Darwinhybrids. As a group, their colour range is predominantly red, orange and yellow. ‘Red Impression’ will be in flower before most others in the group. It is an imposing blood red tulip growing 22 inches/55 centimetres or more tall.

Tulip 'Red Impression' Darwinhybrid Group
Tulip ‘Red Impression’ Darwinhybrid Group

Probably the most famous Darwinhybrid Group tulip of all, and the one planted repeatedly on traffic islands and in public parks the world over, is ‘Apeldoorn’, with its huge scarlet flower with the base inside pure black edged with yellow. ‘Oxford’, with a clean yellow base, and ‘Parade’ are two more red Darwinhybrids. Of the three, ‘Oxford’ produces the largest replacement bulbs with fewer offsets in the garden and therefore reliably returns to flower in subsequent years without being lifted. An attempt to reproduce the cross that created ‘Apeldoorn’ resulted in ‘Lefeber’s Memory’, which is yet another excellent dark red.

Tulip 'Apeldoorn' Darwinhybrid Group
Tulip ‘Apeldoorn’ Darwinhybrid Group

Although most red tulips in the Triumph Group have been selected for their suitability for forcing as cut flowers and are not always good in the garden, ‘Charles’ is good on both counts and has persistently returned to flower in my garden for many years without lifting. It produces a fine scarlet red flower with a yellow base in mid-April. An equally good choice would be another Triumph called ‘Hollandia’ which is darker, a rich blood red colour.

Tulip 'Hollandia' Triumph Group
Tulip ‘Hollandia’ Triumph Group

The colour of ‘Couleur Cardinal’ is unique, being scarlet red on the inside, and its outer flame of plum purple give the flowers an iridescence as if it were connected to the electricity supply. ‘Rococo’, its Parrot sport, is equally exciting with exotic smouldering red flowers.

Tulip 'Couleur Cardinal' Triumph Group
Tulip ‘Couleur Cardinal’ Triumph Group

In comparison ‘Bastogne’, at over 24 inches/60 centimetres, is one of the tallest in this group. Its dark blood red flowers never fail to stop me in my tracks when I come across them; again it is a dark sultry colour that glows with an unrivalled richness when lit from behind. Some other more conventional red Triumphs for the garden are ‘Ben van Zanten’, ‘Capri’, ‘Friso’, ‘Hollandia’ and ‘Sevilla’.

Tulip 'Bastogne' Triumph Group
Tulip ‘Bastogne’ Triumph Group

By early May the garden is at its most dynamic, with everything growing quickly in the warmer temperatures and freely available moisture. With so much lush greenery, red late-flowering tulips are an obvious choice where dramatic contrasts are needed. The Single Late Group offers some excellent choices as these tulips are tall and able to keep their flowers above any nearby burgeoning perennials. It includes ‘Kingsblood’, in exactly the same colour as my favourite ‘Red Shine’. ‘Halcro’ has a pinkness to its red flowers that might almost exclude it from this selection, but in the case of ‘Cashmir’ there is no such doubt. Here the flowers are a bright red with a yellow base. Lower-growing ‘Red Georgette’ is useful late in the season for bedding as it is a multi-flowered tulip with up to six small flowers per stem. This tulip has its counterpart in the Triumph Group in ‘Roulette’, which flowers much earlier, around the middle of April.

Tulip 'Kingsblood' Single Late Group
Tulip ‘Kingsblood’ Single Late Group

If Fringed Group tulips appeal, as well as the sport of ‘Couleur Cardinal’ called ‘Arma’, there are two others of use to gardeners: ‘Hellas’ and the award-winning ‘Red Wing’.

Tulipa linifolia
Tulipa linifolia

Species tulips contain some spectacular red-flowered forms. Two that I have grown for some years are T. montana (syn. T. wilsoniana), a low-growing plant that thrives in scree conditions at the side of one of my garden’s gravel paths, and T. sprengeri. Not only because it is invariably the last tulip to flower in our gardens, Tulipa sprengeri deserves a place in every garden as it is simply exquisite. Its outer three petals are metallic bronze on the outside, opening in sunshine to rich red, like chalices filled with Beaujolais nouveau. Importantly, this is the only tulip that grows and flowers successfully in semi shade, where it can be relied upon to spread itself around as seedlings grow to maturity within some four years when left to their own devices.

Tulipa sprengeri
Tulipa sprengeri

It is easy to be tempted to grow too many different coloured tulips that together with other bright coloured spring flowers can turn the garden into a gaudy spectacle. By restricting oneself to a single hue and using it boldly the results can be dramatic, especial when that colour is red.

6 thoughts on “Red Tulips, Green Garden”

  1. Pingback: Tulips in Pots or in Gardens | Perennial Meadows

  2. Pingback: Blue Tulips | Perennial Meadows

  3. I just moved to a beautiful 29-acre farm. The land is flat and beautiful, and I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with the fields that won’t be in hay. I love the color impact that tulips have, so I’ll definitely be trying those. Do you have an thoughts about poppies? With all this land, I’m wanting to keep things fairly easy.

    1. Hi Sharon,
      With so much land to play with you have to keep things simple; I would relish the problem. The style of perennial meadows I am discussing on this site has developed from a need to adapt the naturalistic style of current fashion for use in smaller gardens where wide drifts of perennials just don’ fit. Your situation is rather different. Keep things bold and simple. I would consider using perennial seed mixtures for part of the landscape, but accepting that such an approach takes time. Firstly, in ridding the soil of persistent perennial weeds and secondly allowing the community of plants to develop – three to five years – but that should be fine. Poppies, the annual kind I assume, are plants of disturbed soils not permanent, you would have to prepare the site every year – not exactly a labour saving option – but of course possible with the right (farm) equipment.

  4. I had some tulips bulbs left over last autumn so stuck them amongst some Descampsia that I had planted out. Now that the tulips are about the come out in flower I am quietly thrilled at what looks like it might be a wonderful combination.

    1. It will be Helen, but don’t expect them to return next year – some will but I always find it necessary to add more each year.

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