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Wild tulips thrive in a drought garden

Tulipa linifolia is a powerful red species that stands out boldly in the early garden.
Tulipa linifolia is a powerful red species that stands out boldly in the early garden. TNS

If you’re gardening in drought, wild tulips may become your new best friend this year. These are wildflowers that bloom in spring throughout the mountain ranges and hill country of the Mediterranean and points east. They were first collected by the Persians and later used by the Dutch in early breeding of modern show tulips. They are the hardy pioneers called “botanical tulips” left behind in the wake of our obsession with fancy horticultural varieties.

These are nature’s tulips, tough and resilient to thrive in brutally cold, dry and windy climates. So many times I’ve tried to research them but there’s little to find outside botanical journals.

Then the holy grail of species tulips websites launched, and I am in awe of the result.

Speciestulipbulbs.com is the hub for information on these rare plants suddenly in big demand. Average bulb houses don’t carry them or just a few for aficionados. With drought still in force and other short term weather anomalies, it’s time we brought these bulbs into dry Southwestern and California gardens.

What really got me was the website’s interactive map of the eastern Mediterranean that lets you easily see what species are native where. Just click on a botanical name and the map shows where it lives. You also get a great photo of the plant in habitat and detailed text about the species preferences. Study backgrounds and soils closely in these shots. This is the best way to understand how to use species tulips for problem-solving under difficult conditions.

Most species are short plants that hunker down against the cold spring winds in high mountain locations. Leaves are narrow to reduce moisture loss. They can become perennials when the rains return. These tulips begin growing with moisture and bloom in early spring before heat and drought set in on these exposed windswept locals.

Their mountain origins also make these an ideal solution for well drained ground of any type. Just remember these species are adapted to lean conditions of cliff fissures, rocky scree, alluvial fans and pockets of eroded soils. Use them on slopes, in raised beds, around boulders, or spot into dry stream beds and into stone rubble. There is no better choice for blending into zones of ornamental grasses. Wild tulips add flashes of seasonal color before the grasses green up for a beautiful early season show. Incorporate into meadow and mesic prairie compositions for greater diversity.

Reports suggest species are resistant to rodents and deer, but that remains to be seen by real testing against your local populations.

Because we know so little about them, this site is an important education on species tulips to promote tougher plants for a changing climate. These Dutch bulb explorers opened the door for me and everyone else to learn how to use them for spring color in drought.

White Flower Farm (whiteflowerfarm.com) and bulb sellers are offering new species for the first time this fall. They are always listed by genus and species, which often hints at origins such as with Tulipa turkestanica, T. cretica.

Now is the time to round up a group of them and test in your fall garden with Turkish Tapestry Species Tulip Mixture. Colorblends.com offers Aladdin’s Carpet blend with six species of tulips plus muscari and dwarf narcissus for the perfect addition to open space planting. Buy a mix of species and plant them all, then compare in spring to find the most vigorous.

Flowers of species are more color limited and basic than hybrids, with white, red, and yellow the most prominent.

When we sow wildflowers we hope they will naturalize. These wild tulips may do the very same thing if grown in the right location. There is none better than amidst the drought adapted perennials and grasses where nature waters them this winter to bring on spring bloom naturally, without irrigation.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.