Sometimes it’s the smallest things that have the greatest impact. Such is the case with the minor bulb called Tulipa tarda (tarda tulip). Minor in classification only, this gem is a workhorse in the spring garden, filling in around shrubs and quietly supporting its taller, more brilliantly colored cousins.
My first encounter with tarda tulip was during a course in bulbs at the Chicago Botanic Garden. During the eight weeks we spent with instructor extraordinaire Jill Selinger, now the Garden’s manager of continuing education, we were dazzled by the phenomenal array of bulbs of all types and sizes and in all colors of the rainbow. From fantastic Fritillaria to diminutive Muscari, we covered them all. But it was the sunny blooms of Tulipa tarda that won my heart. The class was held in spring to allow for “bulb walks” throughout the grounds, but I couldn’t wait for fall to fill my little garden with tarda.
Zones 3 to 8
Can reach to 8 to 10 inches; normally 4 to 6 inches
May spread like a groundcover; single plant in first years will reach 4 to 6 inches
Perfect for rock gardens; naturalizes well around trees or shrubs; provides a layer of color at the front of the border
Showy, star-like blooms emerge white with a yellow eye, often resembling fried eggs – but lovelier
Tulipa tarda is an early riser, normally blooming from March through April in zones 3 to 8. It’s easily grown in average, well-drained soil in full sun; despite its nativity in the rocky, subalpine meadows of central Asia, the bulb prefers a humusy mix. I’ve had no trouble, however, watching them multiply nicely in my sad clay soil. The small bulbs should be planted about 4 to 5 inches deep in fall, and after blooms are spent, foliage should be left in place until it yellows.
So what’s the attraction to Tulipa tarda, aside from the rhythm of pronouncing its name? Each flowering stem produces three to six friendly, star-shaped blooms that emerge white with a brilliant yellow eye. Some say the flowers resemble a plate of fried eggs, but let’s give the plant more credit than that. Individual blooms are upward-facing, spanning only about 2½ to 3 inches across. Held atop the 4- to 6-inch-tall stems, though, the flowering cluster offers a burst of sunshine to help shake off the winter blues.
The graceful, glossy green foliage is narrow and strap-like, reaching about 5 to 7 inches long. It has a tendency to arch a bit, presenting a fountain of green to surround the flower stalks. Tarda perennializes well when it’s provided the appropriate growing conditions; from a small initial planting of 10 or so bulbs, my garden has maintained tarda for at least a dozen years. Given the chance, this plant will spread like a groundcover, but it’s not aggressive and is quite easily maintained. It suffers very little from insect or disease infestation, and the only problems I’ve encountered occurred when I mistakenly dug up young bulblets and neglected to re-cover them sufficiently.
Photo courtesy of Sally Benson
Without shouting its presence, this little bulb is beautiful in and of itself, but it also serves to highlight neighboring plants. Planted in rock gardens, at the front of the spring border or allowed to naturalize around trees and shrubs, Tulipa tarda promises a cheery little greeting to the new season.