If Plant of the Week should be determined by the plant that has provided the most genuine pleasure, in that very week, then there’s no argument. This week’s plant must be Tulipa clusiana.
But I’m curiously reluctant to give it the guernsey.
That may be partly due to it being very geographically limited, and my consequent reluctance to sing the praises of something that might not have universal application. But I think it’s mostly due to it being a true ephemeral, and I’ve somehow found myself in a rut which assumes that a plant has to have a degree of permanent presence in order to be worthy of celebration on this platform.
This, of course, is stupid. My favourite gardens are those based on a range of longevities – gardens in which trees of hundreds of years old (ideally, romantically) creating a benign canopy over hedges decades old, that delineate spaces containing shrubs years old, amongst which are bulb or annual flowers that are only hours old. The magic and mystery of that makes my dizzy.
So it’s in that spirit and context that I’m holding Tulipa clusiana in high honour today.
There’s a fineness and elegance about everything to do with the lady tulip, as it’s known. I adore big hybrid tulips, but this species reverses every aspect of their muscularity and boldness, and then perfects it. The stems are fine, willowy and fragile looking. The foliage is gorgeously slender and grey. The buds are fine-pointed arrowheads that colour to white-edged fairy-floss pink at about 25-30cm tall, like a peppermint stick or coconut ice, then open wide to pearlescent stars with deep, dark purple stamens. I can’t think how I’d improve them, in any way.
Tulipa clusiana comes largely from the Middle East, like so many species, and likes a hot dry summer, but a cool to chilly winter. It’s said that it doesn’t need quite the chill of other tulips to succeed, and it has returned for several years running in Melbourne friend’s gardens. But there’s not much you can do to change that – If it likes your climate, it’ll increase from year to year. If not, it won’t. It’ll either slowly diminish or never come up again. Deeper planting of the bulbs might help a little. That’s about as far as assistance goes.
I’d love to hear if you’ve succeeded with them in your climate!
I’m in the habit of thinking of these bulbs in desert sands, so am surprised that, for me, the greatest rate of increase in Tulipa clusiana has occurred on heavyish clay soil. It is also said to be stoloniferous, though I’ve yet to see any evidence of that in my conditions. Tulipa hageri ‘splendens’ nearby is also known to be stoloniferous, but it has taken at least five years for that characteristic to start to show, so maybe it’ll be the same with T. clusiana.
The species is variable, leading to the naming of several different forms, of which ‘Lady Jane’ (white background), and Cynthia (pale yellow background) are selected forms, though there’s variation from mine as they start to appear from seed.
Context, when it comes to ephemeral plants like this, is everything. While I’m a species-tulip nut, it’s only quite recently that I created a setting, or a context, or a stage, that works for them, allowing me to integrate them into the garden proper and not just grow them as little feature clumps, or limit them to pots. The are in question is a whole zone of low planting in gravel, over which the tulips can hover when they’re out, then just disappear underground over summer and not leave a visible space with tell-tale bare soil.