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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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A Special Species Tulip

During the spring season, garden bloggers rarely write about planting tulip bulbs. That topic is reserved for late summer and early fall to coincide with the upcoming autumn, when such bulbs are planted. In the spring, those that grow tulips usually restrict their activities to posting images of bulbs in bloom. This season, I must make an exception to these unwritten rules. A species tulip has just bloomed in my garden and I need to share information about it while it is still inspiring.

The frustration of having to replace spent tulip bulbs after several years of boom, had sent me back to the books to investigate varieties that naturalize i.e. that will grow back year after year, just as reliable perennial plants do. There is a consensus among experienced bulb gardeners and botanists to plant species tulips that return annually to re bloom with reliability.

One of the species tulips that I found in a mail order catalogue is called Praestans Unicum. It bloomed this past week and caused quite a sensation in spite of the fact that the picture in the catalogue had not been very impressive. It showed a short scarlet tulip with a white margined green leaf. Because scarlet is one of my least favorite colors, I was not immediately drawn to this bulb. Unfortunately, it was the only species tulip in this merchant’s catalogue, and I had no other choice but to order it. I asked for one packet of 6 bulbs. Big mistake!  Now that I see it in bloom, I wish that I had ordered several packages, that’s how impressed I am with its performance in my garden.

The tulip is only 12 inches in height but since it blooms before taller tulips do, its size is not an issue. It is quite prominent in my flower bed in early spring when very few other bulbs are in bloom. However, what impresses me most is its color. One cannot exactly call it one shade or another as it is a mélange of red, orange, scarlet and cayenne, all depending on the nature of the daylight. When it is back lit by the afternoon sun, as it is in my garden, the almost translucent flower petals are luminous with a fiery, intense, neon quality as if they were light bulbs screwed into a marquee.

The most appreciated aspect about growing Praestans Unicum is that it will grow exponentially over time. Every early spring, for years and years to come, before most of my daffodils and narcissus have bloomed, each of the six solitary tulips now growing in my garden will transform itself into a glowing clump of red/scarlet tulips.

It’s never too early to add this bulb to the autumn shopping list. Planning next year’s spring flowering bulb garden should begin now while bulbs are still in bloom. This is the time to identify bare spots and omissions in the flower beds, to find appropriate locations for planting additional varieties of bulbs, and to determine the quantity of bulbs needed for next season. Few gardeners will be able to remember, by next August, what pleased or disappointed them the previous April and May unless they keep records. This sort of “book keeping” is an integral part of successful garden design because spring flowering bulbs are a welcome kick - start to the color display of our flower beds.

P.S. Michael King, who blogs at, is a tulip specialist who suggested that Tulipa praestans Fusilier is a more robust variety to grow. I am indebted to Michael for fine tuning this piece. Please click on to comments below to read his full opinion.

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Reader Comments (2)

I have that with my tulips too and heard the same thing about the species tulips naturalizing! That one is stunning, I'll have to make a note to look out for it in the bulb catalogs!

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

Allan, 'Unicum' translates as unique from Dutch and this Tulipa praestans cultivar is certainly that. My experience is that it is not as persistent in the garden as many other species tulips, but it is well worth growing. I prefer the more robust T. p. 'Fusilier' the colour is just as intense and I don't find variegated foliage that important in my landscape. This species flowers early and this year I had some 100 bulbs flowering amidst a field of Arabis 'Snowcap' - it was stunning. Tulipa praestans is one of my twenty classic tulips.

May 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael King

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