I have a love-hate relationship with tulips. I love their beauty in the garden, but I hate that they’re so fleeting in their length of display and intolerant of the conditions my garden has to offer. Alas, all gardeners must come to grips with the fleeting nature of beauty and perfection. (Perhaps it’s this very quest that keeps us hooked on our chosen hobby.)

Tulipa greigii open

During the heat of the day, Tulipa greigii spays its flowers open like a water lily.

Photo Credit: Gerald Klingaman

Tulipa greigii closed

During the cooler part of the day, Tulipa greigii closes its blooms.

Photo Credit: Gerald Klingaman

But Tulipa greigii and its cultivars last longer in our gardens than typical hybrid tulips do because they’re slow to produce offsets. And each spring as this bulb renews itself, it doesn’t have the numerous daughter bulbs to nourish, so the main bulb remains relatively large.

This plant was the first species tulip introduced into cultivation directly from the wild. It first flowered in European gardens in 1871 from bulbs collected by P.L. Graeber, a German living in the Central Asian town of Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Back then, in the fine gardens and estates of Europe, cultivated tulip cultivars were suffering a decline in popularity. They were passé, and gardeners lost interest in the gaudy hybrids that breeders in Holland were mass-producing. The arrival of species tulips, like Tulipa greigii, coincided with a new gardening fad sweeping Europe: rock gardening. A kind of horticultural elitism then developed, where wildlings were highly treasured, while mundane cultivars were shunned.

Today, Tulipa greigii is still a treasure for the garden. It’s a short, squatty grower (usually under 14 inches tall) with long, pointed, blocky flower buds almost 4 inches long. As the sun strikes the plant, the flower buds splay open like a water lily, but they close tight as temperatures cool at night. Colors vary from orange-scarlet to creamy-yellow. Bicolor selections with broad contrasting swaths are also common and seem to be a favorite with tulip breeders.

The foliage is distinctive, with a series of brown to maroon stripes running the length of the blade, making this species the easiest to identify of all tulips. Like other tulips, the leaves die down by the first hot days of summer.

The bulb should be planted 6 inches deep in a sunny location where it gets good winter drainage and a thorough baking in summer (and preferably in sandy soil). Too much moisture during summer prevents this desert-dweller from properly curing to ward off the attack of soil-rotting microbes. So place the plant in beds outside of the zone that’s watered by automatic irrigation systems. A flower bed invaded during the summer by elm or maple roots will also help ensure dryness.

Whether in the flower bed or among the rocks, Tulipa greigii is a joyful addition to the garden (however fleeting it may be).