Bulbs Gardening

Darwin Hybrid Tulips Stand the Test of Time

I find shopping for tulip bulbs in my local garden center almost discouraging. It offers plenty of “choice”—dozens of boxes with beautiful photos of colorful flowers— but almost all are Triumph tulips, which are not really garden tulips, but are rather cut flower tulips. That is, ones developed for the huge cut flower tulip industry, far bigger than the garden tulip industry. (Over 95% of the some 4 billion Dutch tulip bulbs produced annually are used to produce cut flowers.) Triumph tulips are beautiful, come in all sorts of extraordinary colors and that’s wonderful. But they have little holding power in the garden.

Yes, there also are a few boxes of botanical tulips, which I love and are indeed long-lived plants offering a great garden performance, plus some of the other special and odd tulips, like Single Early tulips, Lily-Flowered tulips, Parrot tulips and Double Late tulips that are fun to play with. But I want only the best for my garden, workhorse tulips that really deliver results and what can I say, but… Darwin Hybrids are simply the best!

Little to Do with Charles Darwin

Image of Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin never saw a Darwin hybrid tulip. Ill.; openclipart.org

I’m sure Mr. Darwin, the co-developer of the Theory of Evolution, would be surprised to see a whole range of tulips named for him today. After all, he really has little to do with the tulip story.

Somewhere along the line, tulip enthusiasts started to call some of the late-blooming single tulips Darwin tulips in his honor, but the name was already dying out after tulips were moved into a new classification system in the mid-20th century. Tulip specialists lumped Darwin tulips and their close cousins, the cottage tulips, into the new Single Late Tulip class. And that should have been the end of Darwin tulips.

Tulipa fosteriana ‘Mme Lefeber’ with narrow pointed red blooms.
Tulipa fosteriana ‘Mme Lefeber’ was one of the parents of the first Darwin hybrid tulips, giving them huge blooms and strong stems. The Darwin tulips added squatter flowers and additional colors. Photo: pr2is, depositphotos

Then in 1943, prominent Dutch hybridizer D.W. Lefeber succeeded in crossing several Darwin tulips with a botanical tulip, Tulipa fosteriana ‘Mme Lefeber’, better known as ‘Red Emperor’. These two tulips are very distant relatives from two different sections of the tulip genus, Section Gesneriana and Section Eichleres. As a result, crossing them is very difficult, rather like crossing horses and donkeys. Rarely are more than 1 to 3% of such seeds fertile. But from those few fertile seeds, a new category of tulip appeared: Darwin hybrids.

The result is a vigorous tulip with huge flowers up to 7 inches (18 cm) in diameter, rather square at the bottom and rounded at the tip, and borne on a thick, robust stem. It is usually a triploid (some are tetraploids), thus with extra chromosomes. As a result, the flowers are sterile, so waste no energy producing seed. They also have excellent hybrid vigor. As one grower says, they’re “tough as nails”.

The first Darwin hybrids were almost all in shades of red, yellow or orange and they do remain the dominant colors to this day. However, there are now pinks, whites and purples as well. The center is often deep black surrounded by a circle of yellow.

They’re tall tulips as well: 20–28 inches (50–70 cm), the tallest of the mid-season tulips, although some bloom into the late season.

Mix of Darwin hybrid tulip flowers.
Darwin hybrid ‘Apeldoorn’ (cherry red) surrounded by several of its various mutations. Photo: Wouter Koppen, iBulb

However, hybridizing these tulips remains difficult. You can’t cross them, as they are completely sterile. You always have to return to their parent lines, crossing some variety of T. fosteriana with one of the Single Late tulips. Overall, the success rate remains abysmally low. As a result, many cultivars came about as mutations of established cultivars rather than through crossing. The popular red Darwin hybrid ‘Apeldoorn’, for example, has produced some 15 different cultivars strictly through mutation.

Darwin Hybrid Tulips: Both for Landscapes and Cut Flowers

Darwin hybrid tulips offer the best of two worlds.

They’re ideal landscape tulips (and often sold under that name), producing long-lasting flowers at peak tulip-flowering season that are able to put up with wind, rain, ice and snow, and both bitterly cold springs and blazingly hot ones. They’re more shade tolerant that most other tulips as well. Many parks and public gardens base their spring tulip displays on Darwin hybrids because they are so striking and trustworthy.

At the same time, Darwin hybrids can’t be beat as cut flower tulips. Again, their sturdier stems and increased durability, plus their overwhelming size, mean many florists willingly pay more for Darwin hybrid tulips, as they can be sure they will please their customers.

Hand holding darwin hybrid tulip bulbs.
Darwin hybrid bulbs are extra large, often a third bigger than those of Triumph tulips.. Photo: Wouter Koppen, ibulb.org

And they do have to pay more: Darwin tulips grow from huge, heavy bulbs* and that shows in transportation costs. They’ll probably cost you a bit more than Triumph tulips, as the latter have smaller, lighter bulbs.

*Some catalogs sell Darwin hybrids as Jumbo tulips.

Perfect for Home Gardens

What home gardeners really love about Darwin hybrids, besides their striking beauty and large size, is that they are so perennial. We’ve gotten used to growing short-lived Triumph tulips, which are essentially annuals. We’ve forgotten that wild tulips come back year after year and that cultivated ones will too if that factor is used in their selection. I have several clumps of Darwin hybrids that are 27 years old and still bloom beautifully. One is even in partial shade and still doing well. I’ve never moved or divided them.

So, with Darwin hybrids, you can basically plant them and forget them. I almost consider them to be perennials rather than bulbs!

Special Care

Some special care is required, but nothing impossible for the average temperate climate gardener to manage.

Firstly, like any tulip, Darwin hybrids need lots of sun, a rich, well-drained soil and a long, cold winter underground. Plant them in fall, any time from when they arrive in stores in September to mid-November, at least 5 weeks before the ground freezes. They’re adapted to hardiness zones 3 to 8. They will not bloom where winters aren’t cold.

If you can’t plant them right away, keep the bulbs cool and dry until you can.

Planting tulip bulbs.
You need to plant Darwin tulips extra deep to get the full benefit of their capabilities. Photo: Wouter Koppen, ibulb.org

How deep you plant bulbs of any kind is partly determined by their size: the bigger the bulb, the deeper the hole should be. For Darwin hybrids, dig a hole much deeper than the 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) experts usually recommend for tulips in general. I suggest 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm), although I find 12 inches (30 cm) gives the best results. Traditionally, you plant them in groups of 10 to 15 bulbs.

However, the soil has to be very well drained for deep planting to work. Most clay soils simply won’t cut it. At 12 inches (30 cm) in depth, they become so compacted that the tulips’ roots won’t get the air circulation they need. So, you may need to count on naturally sandy soil or on raised beds of improved and well-aerated soil for best results.

Good News!

Squirrel digging holes.
Tree squirrels like this gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) don’t seem to like digging deep holes and have a hard time recuperating Darwin hybrid bulbs. Photo: Son of Groucho, Wikimedia Commons

An unexpected advantage of deep digging is that it means squirrels largely ignore Darwin hybrid bulbs.

Maybe it’s because they’re too lazy to dig that deep. I mean, 12 inches (30 cm): that’s twice as deep as for other tulips. However, I’ve seen them try and I think the real reason they give up so quickly is that the planting hole keeps collapsing down on them if they dig beyond 6 inches (15 cm), making reaching the bulbs very difficult. Or maybe it’s because tree squirrels tend to get nervous when their heads are below soil level for too long a time. Maybe they’re concerned about predators sneaking up on them unseen when practically their entire body is in an ever-deepening trench!

I add compost and organic fertilizer to the planting hole and sprinkle beneficial mycorrhizal fungi at the bottom just before placing the bulbs. Set them about 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) apart, pointed end up.

Fill with soil, then water. A good mulch (I use chopped leaves) will help make sure the soil remains a bit moister from fall through winter and into spring, when roots are present and need water. And as the mulch decomposes over time, it will help maintain the rich, well-aerated soil the tulips need for their survival.

Spring Care

Do fertilize in spring as the flowers fade. Any good organic fertilizer you have on hand would work fine. Or apply compost. Anything that will help keep the soil rich in minerals is useful.

Faded tulip.
Darwin hybrid blooms are sterile, so you don’t have to clip off the faded flowers. Photo: pxhere.com

After Darwin hybrid blooms fade in spring, you don’t have to deadhead them, as the flowers produce no viable seed that can “steal energy” from the bulb. You can let the leaves and stems yellow and turn brown on their own before cutting them off, if that’s your preference.

I don’t clip them off, actually. I just let them decompose on the spot at their own speed. They’re at the back of the garden at any rate, since they’re such tall tulips, and pretty much hidden by other plants by mid-summer.

If you do need to move the bulbs or divide them, do so when the leaves turn yellow. You can replant them right away: no need to wait until fall.

Summer Care

There is none. Particularly, avoid watering if you can. Tulip bulbs like to bake in dry soil over the summer. Irrigation systems are the bane of Darwin tulips’ existence. Neighboring plants like perennials and small shrubs can help remove some of the moisture coming from rain or irrigation.

Fall Care

Just put down more mulch to replace the mulch that has decomposed.

Much More Choice

When I first got into growing bulbs about 30 years ago, there wasn’t all that much choice in color, nor many different varieties. There must be over 100 different Darwin hybrid tulips today, though, so pick according to your tastes.

Here are a few. Don’t think of these as necessarily any better than others, just as examples. Besides, if you buy locally, you’ll largely be limited by what your garden center sells anyway. You’ll have to choose from what they have on offer. For wider range of choice, try mail order.

Tulipa ‘Akabono’: rare double Darwin hybrid. Camellia-like flowers that change from yellow to red. Sweetly fragrant. 20–22 inches (50–55 cm).

T. ‘Apeldoorn’, syn. ‘Red Apeldoorn’: beautiful older variety, but still popular. Color: cherry red with black heart circled in yellow. Very large flowers. Robust stem. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. Apeldoorn’s Elite’: mutation of ‘Apeldoorn’. Yellow flamed red, with very large flowers. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Apricot Impression’: mutation of ‘Pink Impression’. Dark pink becoming orange then red. Green base. 22 inches (55 cm).

Darwin hybrid tulip ‘Banja Luka’. with yellow and red flowers.
Darwin hybrid tulip ‘Banja Luka. Photo: Wouter Koppen, ibulb.org

T. ‘Banja Luka’: bright yellow with a broad rich red edge. Earlier blooming than others. 24 inches (60 cm).

T. ‘Beauty of Apeldoorn’: mutation of ‘Apeldoorn’. Golden yellow slightly to intensely tinged magenta: some flowers are almost yellow, others almost red, but most appear orange to varying degrees. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Beauty of Spring’: Two-toned butter yellow with a feathered crimson edge. Large flower: up to 7 inches (18 cm). 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Blushing Apeldoorn’: mutation of ‘Beauty of Apeldoorn’. Lemon yellow accented with red. Greenish-yellow base. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Burning Heart’: cream streaked with blood red. Very vigorous. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Come-Back’: blood red with a greenish-yellow base. The name refers to its very long life in the garden.

tulip ‘Daydream’ with gold to orang apricot flowers.
Darwin hybrid tulip ‘Daydream just after it opens. It will go through several color changes as it matures. Photo: Wouter Koppen, ibulb.org

T. ‘Daydream’: sunny yellow at first, but becoming orange apricot over time. Beautiful foliage after flowering. One of the best hybrid Darwin tulips. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Elizabeth Arden’: dark salmon pink enhanced with purple, yellow base marked with white. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Garant’: mutation of ‘Golden Apeldoorn’. Canary-yellow flowers. Variegated leaves, medium green with a bright yellow margin. Looks a lot like a hosta after it has finished flowering.

T. ‘Golden Apeldoorn’: golden-yellow, very large flowers. Very strong stem. Magical effect! 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Golden Oxford’: mutation of ‘Oxford’. Pure yellow with a very thin red border, yellow base. Fragrant. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Golden Parade’: mutation of ‘Parade’. Pale buttercup yellow. Large flowers. 24 inches (60 cm).

T. ‘Gudoshnik’: a real chameleon flower! Yellow flowers variously streaked and speckled with bright red. It gives the impression of a mixture, but where all the flowers bloom at the same time. 24 inches (60 cm).

Darwin hybrid tulip ‘Hakuun' with white flowers.
Darwin hybrid tulip ‘Hakuun. Photo: ibulb.org

T. ‘Hakuun’: pure white with buttercup yellow center. Large flowers. 20–24 inches (50–60 cm).

T. ‘Ivory Floradale’: ivory yellow becoming ivory white. It became popular as one of the first white Darwin hybrids, but I must admit this one didn’t last long in my garden. 65-75 cm.

T. ‘Jewel of Spring’: mutation of ‘Gudoshnik’. Sulfur yellow, very thin red edge. Greenish-black base. 24 inches (60 cm).

Fun Fact

You can trace the world tulip back to the Persian dulband ‘turban’, from the shape of the expanded flower.

T. ‘Lady Van Ejik’: Deep rose pink flowers on a very sturdy stem. Extra large blooms with a bit of a scent. 20 inches (50 cm).

T. ‘Maria’s Dream’: ivory white flamed yellow becoming creamy white. One of the better whites. 24 inches (60 cm).

T. ‘Mystic Van Ejik’: Deep pink flowers on a sturdy stem. Extra-large blooms: up to 7 inches (18 cm). 20 inches (50 cm).

T. ‘Niiagata’: large cardinal red flower with burgundy-pink flames. Primrose yellow base. 22 inches (55 cm).

Ollioules' tulip with old rose flowers, pale pink margin.
Darwin hybrid tulip ‘Ollioules’. Photo: Wouter Koppen, ibulb.org

T. ‘Ollioules’: old rose, pale pink margin. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Olympic Flame’: mimosa yellow flamed fire engine red. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Orange Lion’: honey-orange, darker margins. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Oranjezon’: bright pure orange, the most orange of the Darwin hybrids. 20 inches (50 cm).

T. ‘Oxford’: bright scarlet red, sulfur yellow base. The origin of several interesting mutations. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Parade’: fiery red with a black base surrounded by yellow. Large, long-lasting flower. Parent of several popular cultivars. 24 inches (60 cm).

Darwin hybrid tulip ‘Pink Impression’. Mix of shades of pink.
Darwin hybrid tulip ‘Pink Impression’. Photo: Wouter Koppen, ibulb.org

T. ‘Pink Impression’: mix of shades of pink. Very large flower. Very strong stem. 26 to 32 inches (70–80 cm).

T. ‘President Kennedy’: huge bright yellow flower flamed red. 24 inches (60 cm).

T. ‘Red Dynasty’: red. Said to have the largest flower of all hybrid Darwin tulips. Robust stem. 24 to 25 inches (60–65 cm).

T. ‘Red Impression’: mutation of ‘Pink Impression’. Outside mixing bright red and dark pink with a blood red margin. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Salmon Impression’: mutation of ‘Pink Impression’. Orange-pink with paler margin. 22 inches (55 cm).

T. ‘Salmon Van Ejik’: salmon-orange, with hints of deep pink. Extra large blooms. 20 inches (50 cm).

Darwin hybrid tulip ‘Silverstream', cream with frosted red streaks.
Darwin hybrid tulip ‘Silverstream’. Photo: Wouter Koppen, ibulb.org

T. ‘Silverstream’: cream flamed and streaked with frosted red. Each flower is different. Variegated foliage. Very nice effect in the garden. 24 inches (60 cm).

T. ‘Tender Beauty’: pinkish-red, ivory margin. Pure yellow base. 20 inches (50 cm).

T. ‘Van Ejik’: Bold pink flowers on a sturdy stem. Extra large blooms: up to 7 inches (18 cm). 20 inches (50 cm).

T. ‘Vivex’: dark carmine pink, yellow margin. 24 inches (60 cm).

T. ‘World Expression’: soft yellow with red flaming, becoming creamy-white and pinkish red. Robust stem. 24 inches (60 cm).

T. World’s Favourite’: tomato red becoming marked with yellow as it matures. 20 inches (50 cm).


Darwin hybrid tulips: probably the best garden tulips ever!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

5 comments on “Darwin Hybrid Tulips Stand the Test of Time

  1. Their primary allure for me is their perennial quality. I have not grown them for years, and have delayed trying them again, because they were not reliably perennial for me years ago. They bloomed once and were never seen again. I do not remember ever seeing them grow as perennials in other gardens either. I realize that simpler species should be perennial, even with minimal chill, but I do want some that actually look like the familiar cut flower tulips. Until I determine why they are not more popular than they are, I am hesitant to try them again. However (!), not that we are ordering spring bulbs, we are likely to add a few ‘tulips’ in the mix. We have not yet determined which tulips to try, but I would still prefer Darwin tulips. For most flowers, I prefer white, and might get some ‘Hakuun’ tulips eventually, but it seems to me that tulps excel at other colors. Anyway, I will be very pleased if they are more reliably perennial here.

  2. jessica crawford

    Thanks for this deep dive into tulip history. The Darwin’s are definitely long lived garden flowers and the Impression series have created many new bulbs for me to transplant over just a few years. The fosterina tulip Toronto (coral pink) has also been very long lived (20+years), just need dividing every few years. Sandy soil helps keep them dry in the summer.
    Sadly, less info about type of tulip is given on the labels or even online marketing.

  3. Pink Impression is an incredible stunner. We also love Kunyun, sometimes sold as “Cool Lemonade”; it absolutely glows in sunlight and goes through a fun colour transformation from yellow-pink ombré to white-pink ombré.

  4. So much information here. I never knew they lasted longer than single late tulips, which I usually plant. And didn’t know to plant them deeper. My order is in for this year, but next year is still something to dream about…

  5. Yes you have hit the nail on the head in describing Darwin’s tulips ability to survive more than one or two seasons. As beautiful as other tulip varieties are it’s a lot of work to replant every year. It’s also why I love species tulips so much too.

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