When I was a child, people had tulips in their gardens that returned every spring to everyone’s delight. Is there anyone who doesn’t love a tulip? Then about 30 years ago I spoke to a landscaper who told me tulips were treated as annuals to be sure they bloomed the next spring. This didn’t make sense to me who always thought of tulips as perennials. Why should a plant that I was used to seeing each spring as perennials now have to be planted as annuals? Was this becoming a racket to make people buy tulip bulbs every fall?
I knew that tulips were native to the dry rocky soils of Turkey where they are its national flower. Were we getting too much rain these days that made the tulips rot in the ground? We may be getting more rain these days, but the tulip bulbs we plant, esp. the big hybrid ones, come from the farms in the Netherlands where they have as much rain as many parts of the US has. So the wetness of the soil should not be the cause.
The other day, I attended a lecture given by a lady who runs the seed and bulb company Harvesting History. I asked her what has happened to tulip bulbs that they have to be planted annually. She said the reason is that today the growers of tulip bulbs clone the plants. I guess they do this to insure the customer that he or she will be getting what was ordered. But cloning weakens the bulb and therefore it is not as strong as an un-cloned bulb. A cloned bulb will not return reliably every year. She said scientists are working on this problem.
Today’s show gardeners and landscapers cannot rely on tulips returning reliably so they dig up the bulbs, compost them and replant a new garden each fall with bulbs they know will be the colors and size they want.
Therefore if you planted tulips and thought they did not return because animals like deer or voles or chipmunks were the reason your bulbs did not return, know that you might be right. Tulips are edible and lots of animals like to eat them. But more likely your tulips did not return because, like an annual plant, your tulip only lasted one season.
There are some tulip bulbs that might give you better success in perennializing. If you are looking for the tall tulips and get a catalog from those in the bulb business, they should write which tulip bulbs may have a better chance of returning or naturalizing. Usually these tulips are the Darwin tulips.
And if you don’t mind short tulips, look for what is called species tulips or botanical tulips. These are the tulips that the information given will say they naturalize, which means they should return every spring. I had planted species tulips when I first moved to my house over 40 years ago. The species tulips in my garden did return for a few years but then they either died or animals ate the bulbs. The numbers of species tulips that I had planted dwindled until I had none left. Deer do eat these tulips but not as readily as the taller tulips. The fact that my soil is heavy clay may also be the reason that tulips do not thrive in my garden. Though my soil seems to drain well, tulips prefer dry sandy soil. But I am replanting tulip bulbs and this year I learned that species Tulip Praestans Fuselier 1039 though short, has large red flowers that are the size of the tall tulip flowers.
Another thing to know about having tulips return is that they need Nitrogen fertilizer. They should be fed a solution when they are planted and when they emerge in the spring. The Chicago Botanic Garden recommends that
“After planting the bulbs in fall, top-dress the bed with a balanced, 10-10-10 or 10-15-10 slow-release fertilizer. Lightly cultivate the soil to disperse the fertilizer, or water it in well. Apply fertilizer to the top of the soil instead of the planting hole to avoid burning the bulbs. In spring, apply the same fertilizer when new green shoots appear. Continue to fertilize perennial bulbs twice a year at these times at no more than two pounds per 100 square feet of planting space at each application (or follow exact label directions). Although established bulbs are in a dormant state during summer, they will initiate new root growth in fall, thus utilizing the available fertilizer.”
“Gardeners should also remember to let leaves and stems remain attached to bulbs this spring until they have lost their green color.”
For more information on perennializing tulips read this: