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The little tulips: Tulipa tarda proves that less is more.

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Courtesy of Karan Davis Cutler

(Read caption) A native of Central Asia, Tulipa tarda won a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit in 1993 and the 1997 Flower Bulb of the Year award in the Netherlands. Both awards involved multiple garden trials to ensure it was appropriate for planting in home gardens.

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The showy clumps of hybrid tulips that I planted last fall are in their glory right now. But next spring they will be less impressive, and in three years I’ll need to fill their spot with some other plant. Unlike daffodils, tulips are not “forever flowers.”

But I have one tulip that returns year after year: Tulipa tarda. It’s a species tulip — some gardeners call them botanical tulips — which means it appears in nature and is “unimproved,” not a creation of clever Dutch breeders, the people who have been creating spectacular tulips since the late 1500s.

Subdued beauty

Hybrid, or Dutch, tulips are known as “the peacocks and parrots of the bulb world,” a salute to their brilliant colors and forms. My little species tulip is neither peacock nor parrot but lovely in its own right.

Moreover, it’s one of the few species tulips you can find at garden centers and online suppliers. And the price is right. Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, a superb bulb supplier located in Virginia, offers 50 bulbs for less than $20.

In early spring, a single bulb produces between three and eight blooms, each about two inches across with large yellow centers edged with white. Upward facing and star-shaped, the flowers are held on short stems — plants are about eight inches tall — and open fully only on sunny days.

Tulipa tarda produces offsets, but it also self-seeds. Some gardeners collect the seeds, sow them in pots, and then transfer the seedlings to the garden. I leave the plants to their own devices, and they have spread nicely. One warning: The emerging leaves look like grass, so it’s easy to mistake them for weeds.


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