My Top Five… Tulips

I have to confess that we’re having a moment of tulipmania here at Sissinghurst this spring. We have always grown tulips both in the garden and in pots but this year we’ve been trying out many different cultivars and this has stimulated quite a few conversations about our own personal likes and dislikes. But whatever our opinions, it’s been quite exciting seeing them emerge from the bulb frames and take their place in the garden. Claire, who is in charge of pots, has been wheeling pots of tulips in and out of the nursery for the past few weeks with a seemingly endless supply of new delights. We’ve had a plant identification consisting of nothing else but tulips and our Head Gardener, Troy has taken to walking around the garden holding various different tulip flowers in hand to see where they might look good next year, even going as far as saying “There’s not really a day in the year when you don’t think about tulips.” Personally, I love tulips. I find their colours perfect for spring; lifting the spirits and reminding us that summer is just around the corner. Not only that but they’re also such a useful flower at this time of year, mixing with other spring plants such as forget-me-knots and the low herbaceous growth which is just emerging. No matter how much we talk about snowdrops and narcissus, to me, they still represent that cold time of year when everyone longs for warmer and longer days. Tulips are a celebration of the passing of the cold days of early spring and I think that is why people like them so much. So to choose my top five is a challenge and I’m sure each Sissinghurst gardener would choose a different five but that’s the great thing about gardening; beauty is in the eye of the beholder so we can all have our favourites.

My Top Five... Tulip

Tulips in the Lime Walk

Tulip ‘Clara Butt’
‘Clara Butt’ is a beautiful old tulip. Flowering in mid to late April, it is a clear rosy pink single tulip with a height 45-50 cm. It flowers in the Rose Garden and is reliably perennial having grown at Sissinghurst for many years, although we don’t know when it arrived. What we do know however is that it is named after an opera singer born in 1872. It’s hard to imagine a singer in today’s world putting up with a name like Clara Butt when she could be Madonna, Beyoncé or Lady Gaga but in the 19th century talent was all that mattered and Clara was immensely popular, singing in concert halls around the world. The tulip named after her, was bred by Ernst H. Krelage in 1889 who created a new group of tulips called the Darwin tulips. ‘Clara Butt’ the tulip also became immensely popular with Victorian and Edwardian gardeners and became one the best-selling tulips during this era. But fashions move on and in 1943 the Darwin tulips were superseded by the Darwin hybrids which had a greater range of colour including yellows, oranges and reds such as ‘Apeldoorn’. By 2007 only one grower produced ‘Clara Butt’ commercially and it is likely that the tulip would have been lost forever were it not for the efforts of Scott Kunst from Old House Gardens Nursery in the USA. He bought the remaining stock of ‘Clara Butt’ and sent 100 bulbs to Holland to be propagated. Now the future of this bulb is secure, although it’s still not possible to buy it in the UK. So when you next order your tulips, give a thought to the golden oldies of the bulb world. If we are constantly seduced by the new introductions that the bulb companies promote, these classic but beautiful cultivars will be lost forever.

Tulip 'Clara Butt'

Tulip ‘Clara Butt’

Tulip ‘Elegant Lady’
Another classic Sissinghurst tulip which was bred in 1953 and has been grown in the garden for many years. It belongs to the Lily-flowered Group and is a fine example of this type with its narrow waist and petals that flare outwards. Flowering from late April to May it can grow up to 40cm, but it is the colour that elevates it into my top five; clotted cream with pale rosy pink edges that make a strawberry and cream combination. Whoever named this tulip chose well.

Tulip 'Elegant Lady'

Tulip ‘Elegant Lady’

Tulip ‘Princess Irene’
Sometimes spelt as Prinses Irene which is the Dutch spelling, these tulips belong to the Triumph Group and were bred in 1949. They are mid-season flowering tulips and will grow to about 35cms tall. At Sissinghurst they have historically been grown in the copper pot in the Cottage Garden where the flame coloured flowers sit in perfect contrast to the blue-green patina of the copper. The outer orange petals are streaked with soft purple and have a hazy bloom which open up to vibrant inner petals. Tulip ‘Orange Princess’ is the double form of this tulip and being a sport is a similar height and flowers at the same time. I saw it for the first time this year at the Pashley Manor Tulip Festival in East Sussex. The colouring is almost identical to ‘Princess Irene’ except for the addition of some flashes of green on the outer petals. An interesting diversion but not as good as the original, in my opinion.

Tulip ‘Ronaldo’
A new tulip at Sissinghurst and one that we have combined with ‘Aladdin’ in the pots in the Lime Walk. The single petals are a dark purple-maroon with a subtle chalky sheen on the outside. Dark purple tulips are such a useful ingredient in the spring garden, giving depth and contrast to colour schemes or creating a dark and sultry look in a pot. Other good darks are ‘Black Jack’, ‘Negrita’, ‘Havran’, ‘Queen of the Night’ or ‘Greuze’ which is grown in the Purple Border.

Tulip ‘Aladdin’
Another great lily-flowered tulip, ‘Aladdin’ adds a dash of red flair to the Cottage Garden. It was bred in 1942 and since then there have been various sports such as ‘Aladdin’s Lamp’ and ‘Aladdin’s Record’. ‘Aladdin’ itself has beautifully flared red petals, each one edged with a thin, feathered line of white. We grew it in the big pots this year in the Lime Walk mixed with ‘Ronaldo’, forget-me-nots and the Narcissus ‘Martinet’.

Tulip 'Aladdin'

Tulip ‘Aladdin’

Other lily-flowered tulips that I particularly like include ‘Maytime’, ‘Ballerina’, ‘China Pink’ and ‘Purple Dream’.  Perhaps it’s a bit sneaky to mention them with another choice but they are all stand-out tulips displaying elegance, poise and style.

I should stop there but I could easily continue as last week I had the opportunity to work at Gravetye Manor [the home of William Robinson] for a week and fell completely in love with the tulip display in the flower garden. Needless to say, there was much discussion about tulips and I thought it would be fun to ask Tom Coward, the Head Gardener, what his top five tulips were. He rattled off ‘Menton’, ‘Red Shine’, National Velvet’, ‘Burning Heart’ and ‘Ballerina’ before coming back five minutes later to ask if he could add some more. Clearly an infringement of the rules but as he’s the HG I let him get away with it. He added ‘Abu Hassan’, ‘Negrita’, ‘Havran’, ‘Arabian Mystery’ and ‘Olympic Flame’ to his list which had suddenly become a top 10.  The other gardeners had their favourites too with ‘Red Shine’ being mentioned by both Stuart, one of the Assistant Head Gardeners and Steve, the Propagator. Stuart also liked ‘Attila’; a really vibrant dark pink tulip although his all time favourite is ‘Spring Green’ which I love too. Steve, also rated ‘Blue Heron’ and ‘Black Jack’.

I hope that these suggestions have given you some ideas for next year. It’s always fun to experiment so why not order a few bulb catalogues this summer and have a go at finding your top five tulips. And if anyone has grown any amazing tulips this year, it would be great to hear about them.

Helen Champion