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Most people probably don't realize that the big, beautiful tulips that grace the gardens of Olbrich each spring trace their existence to a relatively small group of wild tulips that range from the western Mediterranean through Central Asia. Much smaller in both flower and leaf than modern hybrids, they survive in harsh conditions: dry rocky soil, frigid winters, and broiling hot summers with little or no rain.
Many of these tulips would falter in the climate and soil that we enjoy. But a select group of these small tulips, generally referred to as species tulips, displays adaptability as well as toughness by thriving right here in Wisconsin.
In fact, you've probably enjoyed them at Olbrich, where they show off their charms in areas as different as the Rock Garden, the Meadow Garden, the Atrium Shade Garden, and Olbrich's new Gravel Gardens. Some of the varieties that do well for us are identical to their counterparts in the wild, others are perhaps one step removed, selected for a particular color variation within the species.
You might enjoy any of the varieties of Tulipa batalinii. With names like 'Apricot Jewel', 'Bright Gem', and 'Yellow Jewel', they are six to eight inches tall and range in color from soft yellow to yellow flushed with light orange. Once the early-May blooms are finished, the diminutive foliage
withers away to nothing in just a few weeks.
Another excellent species is Tulipa clusiana. Sometimes called the lady tulip, the true species is a red and white beauty that looks like a piece of peppermint candy. We enjoy a larger version called 'Lady Jane' and a yellow and red variety called T. clusiana var. chrysantha in our Meadow. If you like earlier color, try the mid-April blooming varieties of Tulipa humilis. T. humulis 'Persian Pearl' is a bright magenta with a yellow base and 'Eastern Star' is very similar. They excel with their bright colors in both our Rock Garden and Meadow Garden.
Another new and promising species tulip is a hybrid of Tulipa hageri called 'Little Princess'. Coppery-orange petals lead down to a yellow-edged black base - very colorful. Let's not forget Tulipa turkestanica, a multi---flowering charmer with dancing white star-shaped blooms that barely resembles a tulip.
Species tulips are easy to grow. A sunny location and any well-drained soil will do. Plant them in the fall in groups of three to five with a few solos scattered around for a natural look. Five to six inches down will protect them from critters and weather extremes. Give a few varieties a try - you'll be glad you did!