Two species tulips for hot climates

Central Asia is home to two species tulips that are remarkably resistant to hot summers and conversely cold winters.  They are respectively, Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’ and Tulipa clusiana v. chrysantha.  Moreover, both seem quite happy to grow and flower, and even increase over time with little maintenance in the hot, wet summers of southern Japan where I live. These two flowering bulbs are a must have in any suitable garden.

Tulipa 'Little Beauty' clump
Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’ certainly lives up to its name. The flowers are borne in small clusters and open all at once, giving a stunning display despite this plant’s dwarf habit.

While both are commonly available in the trade, their naming is a bit confusing. T. ‘Little Beauty’ is a cultivar that has been listed as a form of T. hageri by some, T. humilis by others, as well as T. pulchella (a plant often considered a form of T. humilis). Variation within T. hageri and T. humilis is extreme, making the situation even more confusing.

T. clusiana has two color forms, white and yellow. The outer surfaces of the tepals are a lovely reddish-purple, giving flower even more interest. The yellow form is known as var. chrysantha and it is this plant I have experience with in the garden. Again, the naming of this tulip has been confusing with some considering it a yellow variety of T. montana, and sometimes it is sold under the name T. chrysantha.

Naming aside, both are lovely and rewarding garden plants. T. ‘Little Beauty’ is an extremely dwarf tulip, standing not more than 15 cm tall. Each growth offers a cluster of large, long lasting flowers borne on short, stout stalks. Each one is up to 6 cm across. The outer part of the tepals (the collective term for both sepals and petals) are a lovely reddish-purple suffused with varying degrees of pink. The center is a rich blue with white edging. Flowers open en masse and offer a stunning display.

T. clusiana v. chrysantha is no less stunning a flower, though the plant is taller, up to 30 cm or more. Each growth sports a single flower, but in a mass they are truly something to behold. While the outer surfaces of the tepals are strongly colored orange-red in this form, when the flower is fully opened and viewed from above it is the purest of yellows throughout, including the stamens and pistol. The flower stalks are quite a bit longer and thinner than in T. ‘Little Beauty’ and more subject to damage from high winds or rain.

Both plants are highly sensitive to sunshine, or the lack thereof. On overcast days the flowers close up totally. In the case of C. clusiana v. chrysantha that makes the red coloration more evident. Once the sun comes out, both open fully, showing their stark beauty.

The bulbs look much like any tulip bulb, but are much smaller, not more than 4 cm in diameter. These are true tunicate bulbs with a outer layer of dried sheath-like scales and embryonic tissues within that develop into the leaves and flowers. The leaves of both species are nothing special to look at – again, very tulip looking, light blue green color, but more narrow than the large hybrids. The leaves of T. ‘Little Beauty’ grow more prostrate to the ground than T. clusiana. The ornamental value of them is limited and their brief appearance (only about 2 months) doesn’t give you much time to see them anyway.

Tulipa 'Little Beauty' flowers
The flowers of Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’ remain somewhat cupped even in the full sun.
Tulipa clusiana v. chrysantha flowers
Tulipa clusiana v. chrysantha is very responsive to the sun, opening and closing depending on its intensity. Here the flowers are half open in the weak morning sun, revealing the orange-red coloration of the outer tepals.

These plants are from south central Asia, an area with hot, dry summers and fairly severe winters. Flowering commences early in southern Japan, usually starting in early April. Depending on the weather, each flower can last for a week or more before fading. The leaves stay green for perhaps 6 more weeks and go totally dormant by late June, right in time with the onset of Japan’s intense monsoon rains. The plants remain out of sight until the following spring when they again make their brief appearance.

This does not mean they are totally dormant, just that the leaves are. While it is said that they prefer drier, hot conditions in summer to do well, in my experience, both weather out Japan’s monsoon without any trouble. Some years the monsoon can last up to nearly two months and over a meter of rain can fall in that short time. I have never lost any to rot during this period. I can’t say this is the optimal way of growing them, but they don’t seem to be adversely effected either. I have heard that they should not be planted in cold, wet soil since this invites rot.

Another added bonus is I have not been particularly careful about the soil they are planted in, and yet they thrive. Soils in my area are a sticky, gritty, volcanic loam that is remarkably well draining, and yet not what I would classify as light in texture. The soil reaction is moderately acidic. When I plant new bulbs I simply loosen up the soil to a depth of 15 cm or so and plant them without any other aid. Some sources say they should be planted deep, at least 15 cm, but all of mine are planted at half that depth with no problems. Probably the best time to plant them is in early fall while the ground is still warm to avoid the above mentioned rot problems.

Tulipa clusiana v. chrysantha clump
When the sun is shining Tulipa clusiana v. chrysantha opens its flowers nearly flat. The intense yellow of the inner flower hides the orange-red of the outer tepal surfaces completely.

Honestly, I was quite taken back when I first grew these. In my mind species tulips (and tulips in general) are rather fickle and in need of constant replanting for good flowering. Much to my surprise both T. ‘Little Beauty’ and T. clusiana came back just as strong the second season and even increased a bit the third and fourth years. I’ve tried other species tulips with far less luck, notably the lovely T. tarda, T. turkestanica, and T. praestans. The latter species has done the best, but has slowly diminished over time.

What is more is that both are cold tolerant as well, and should be fully hardy to USDA cold hardiness zone 3 and yet also survive summers of zone 8 in the southeastern USA. In other words, you can grow these lovely plants virtually across most of the USA and Europe.

I have never used soil amendments to aid them in any way, not bone meal, nor lime, and precious little fertilizer. This in no way has seemed to hurt them or slow them down. I would say that any free draining loam that is neither too acidic or basic should be fine for them. If your soils are strongly basic, I would add organic material to decrease the pH, but this shouldn’t be a worry in most areas. Also, I would tend to fertilize them more in truly sandy, barren soils, and be sure the don’t dry out during the growth cycle of the leaves and flowers. In summer you can back off the water without much trouble, but I wouldn’t let the ground get truly dry either.

Tulipa 'Little Beauty' in the sun
The back lit flowers of Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’ – a flowering bulb worthy of any garden.

A couple cautions should be noted however. First, while both will withstand some shading, they prefer full on sunshine. As with many sun loving plants, they will grow taller if shaded and tend to flop over during spring showers. This is more a problem with C. clusiana since it is a naturally taller plant, and their elegant, wiry flower stalks easily bend after a spring shower. To flower well they need at least 5 hours of sun, and more is better provided they do not dry out excessively.

Having said that, shading during their summer dormancy doesn’t effect them negatively as long as the soil stays warm. I have several nice patches of both species growing right alongside large Brugmansia shrubs (angel trumpets). The Brugmansia are cut down to the ground each winter by frost and don’t attain large size until mid summer at which point the tulips are in full shade from them. Since the tulips are fully dormant by then they are unaffected by the dark conditions.

Secondly, since these are truly dwarf tulips, especially T. ‘Little Beauty’, you need to keep competing plants away from them, at least during their growth phase since they can be easily crowded out. Having said that, they tend to clump and this doesn’t seem to bother them in terms of health or number of flowers. After 4 or more years it may be helpful to divided clumps up as you would narcissus to give them more room.

Considering their ease of cultivation, tolerance of hot summer conditions, and extreme beauty, I highly recommend both of these species tulips for even the beginning gardener. You will be completely mesmerized on sunny April days when they are showing their stuff.

Tulipa Little Beauty in flower
Tulipa Little Beauty in full flower is absolutely stunning.


2 Replies to “Two species tulips for hot climates”

  1. I really enjoyed your pictures. I am looking for a large red tulip with really no stem and very sparse greenery. In fact the leaves look virally affected and very sparse. The tulips are huge and very very bright red.

    1. Hey Jeff,

      With the plethora of hybrids out there these days, it is really hard to say what tulip you’re looking for. I recently went to a huge planting of hybrid tulips and was astounded at the variety of colors and forms that exist these days – a far cry from these wild types. I did see some large red flowered ones with a purple/blue center very reminiscent of T. humils or T. hageri, but much larger flowers – sparse foliage as well.

      As for virus, it is possible your plant was indeed virused. Some varieties carry them.

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