Nothing dispels November gloom better than planting tulip bulbs in anticipation of a spectacular display next spring. Whether your taste is for soft, hazy drifts or blazing, eye-catching blooms, with more than 3,000 varieties of tulip it’s possible to create shows and combinations of almost infinite variety, colour and form.
For those who prefer a gentle introduction to the delights of spring, many Viridiflora tulips have delicate hues that blend together beautifully or combine well with low-growing spring favourites such as bellis, primroses, wallflowers and forget-me-nots. I’m fond of ‘Spring Green’ simply underplanted with wallflower ‘Ivory White’ or combined with the creamy fluted flowers of tulip ‘Green Dance’. ‘China Town’ is another delicate Viridiflora with palest pink petals flushed with a characteristic green flame. It’s a fabulous tulip for cutting, with blooms that last several weeks in a vase, and is ideal for planting around apple and pear trees where its pinks, greens and whites complement the pale colours of the spring blossom.
Another simple yet effective pairing is the classic tulip ‘Shirley’ floating above a carpet of blue forget-me-nots. ‘Shirley’ was the first tulip I ever grew and has remained a favourite for the way its soft purplish edges wash seamlessly into the ivory petal centres. Although ‘Shirley’ works well as a single variety en masse, she also combines brilliantly with purple tulips such as ‘Purple Prince’ or ‘Blackjack’ for added impact.
When I first grew ‘Mistress Mystic’, I was captivated by the inky lavender petals with a pink flush down the centre. This tulip looks stunning with a backdrop of dark-leaved perennials such as Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ or purple heuchera and bergenias. Other tulips with smoky tones include the double-flowered ‘La Belle Epoque’ and ‘Brownie’, the muted ivory pinks of ‘Elegant Lady’, the copper tones of ‘Cairo’ and, another of my favourites, the soft orange and purple flush of ‘Prinses Irene’ (and yes, it’s named after a Dutch princess and yes, it really is spelt like that!). To add a little more definition to a mix of smoky tulips, try including the bold purples, reds and pinks of Triumph tulip ‘Slawa’, or a glamourous Parrot tulip like the deep maroon ‘Black Parrot’.
For an truly arresting display that lasts for weeks, I like to grow ‘Queen of Night’, ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Purple Prince’. Not only is it a rich and vibrant combination, but all three tulips are reliably perennial, even in my heavy soil, so it’s sustainable too. ‘Queen of Night’ is one of the deepest of purple tulips, along with ‘Paul Scherer’ and ‘Black Hero’. ‘Ballerina’ has fluted petals and the flowers are delicately orange scented – if I could only ever plant one tulip, it would be ‘Ballerina’. Other combinations which set deep purples against reds and oranges include ‘Paul Scherer’ with ‘Orange Brilliant’ and ‘Abba’, or ‘Black Parrot’ alongside ‘Blackjack’ and ‘Hermitage’.
Contrasting colours make a bold statement in borders and containers too. Deep purple and ivory or white is a striking combination – try ‘Queen of Night’ paired with ‘Angels Wish’ or ‘White Dream’. Dark tulips also stand out well against a backdrop of pale spring flowers such as white forget-me-nots or light pink bellis. Alternatively, try zingy ‘Burgundy Lace’ with the lily-flowered ‘White Triumphator’ for a vivid contrast that will stop you in your tracks.
Wild and Wonderful
Sometimes it’s fun to go wild and plant with flamboyance and flare, especially in spring container displays. I love the purple flames creeping up the white petals of ‘Blueberry Ripple’ and the vibrant cerise of ‘Candy Corner’. Both look superb planted en masse in containers near pathways and doors, where their spectacular colours can be enjoyed every day. And whilst yellow isn’t generally a colour I’d choose for tulip displays, a few years ago I was given some ‘Monte Carlo’ bulbs which I planted in containers. Once the double flowers opened, the sheer zest of the sulphur-yellow petals brought a smile to my face every time I went out into the garden. I haven’t yet had the courage to pair them with ‘Blue Parrot’ for a truly outrageous combination, but you can be sure if I did, it would be a display that would be remembered for many years to come!
Nic Wilson, Writer and Garden Designer