Flamed or feathered, fancy tulips (Tulipa) offer more than the staid red and yellow bulbs seen in gardens every spring. Their particolored blooms add a sense of fun and flirtiness, both indoors in arrangements, and outdoors in containers or in borders. Fancy tulips were so desired in the early 17th century that they caused a craze in the Netherlands, known as tulip mania, where speculators are said to have paid up to 2,500 guilders (the equivalent of $41,000 today) for a single bulb. While modern fancy tulips don’t cost as much, they bring great visual value to the garden.
Among the most sought-after varieties during the years of tulip mania were those with multicolored streaks and stripes—the so-called “broken” or Rembrandt tulips. We now know that the flamboyant patterns were caused by a destructive mosaic virus. Today, Dutch tulip growers go to great lengths to keep the virus out of their fields. Modern stand-ins for the original Rembrandt tulips, such as ‘Burning Heart’ and ‘Rembrandt’s Favorite’, are the result of hybridization, not viruses.
The parrot tulip is another fancy hybrid, so called because the streaked petals and fringed edges of the flower mimic parrot feathers; examples include ‘Green Wave’ and ‘Black Parrot’. Certain double early varieties, such as ‘Double Price’, and double late varieties, such as ‘Angelique’ and ‘Carnaval de Nice’, produce a plethora of petals, to the point of resembling peonies or roses. Fringed tulips such as ‘Honeymoon’ are admired for their delicate lace-edged petals. And then there is ‘Black Jack’, which looks just like a familiar garden tulip—dipped in black ink.
In cool-climate zones, plant tulips 4 to 8 inches deep and apart in humus-rich, well-draining soil in late fall, for spring and early summer displays of color. Gardeners in the South should use prechilled bulbs and plant them in the spring. Discard any bulbs that have brown splotches or pink or white fungal growth, as this is a sign of basal rot; the flower won’t grow or will be deformed. Squirrels, mice, and chipmunks find tulips delectable. If they become a problem, try covering the planted area with chicken wire so the flowers can grow but the animals can’t reach the bulbs. In spring, a small amount of organic bulb fertilizer can be applied before blossoms appear.
Fancy tulips are wonderful as cut flowers fresh out of the garden. They may flop over in the vase, because they are top-heavy and because tulip stems continue elongating even after cutting. The key is to avoid trying to straighten the stems and embrace the beautifully unusual shape. A little sugar and lime juice in the water will help extend their vase life. Outdoors, fancy tulips can be planted en masse like any other tulip, but small clusters of three or five bulbs interspersed among other ornamentals will make them truly stand out.
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