Red is the colour of stop lights, emergency buttons and blood and is also to be found in flowers of many dramatic tulips. Red tulips signal the start of spring especially since they stand out so boldly when surrounded by green; their colour complement.
I use red tulips a lot in my planting plans. They signal the start of spring in the most powerful way, notably, when growing amidst fresh green foliage. Indeed my love affair with red tulips began one year when I planted the Lily-flowered tulip ‘Red Shine’ into a border containing ornamental grasses. The contrast of form, texture and colour was startling, everybody was drawn to it.
Grasses and even a lawn make an ideal setting for all tulips. Other precocious perennials like daylilies, Euphorbias, sedges and ferns offer a similar lush green mantel through which these bulb flowers can attractively emerge.
Red tulips are hot, glowing and attention grabbing when lit by strong spring sunshine. In shade, or on a dull day they can seem to be brooding, dark and vanish into the distance. Use them therefore, in open, sunny places, near to the front of borders or in pots and containers where they will automatically take centre stage.
To signal the very start of spring the most effective tulip we can plant is undoubtedly ‘Showwinner’. This red-flowered Kaufmanniana Group tulip is one of the dominant features at the famous Dutch bulb garden, the Keukenhof, when it opens to the public in the third week of March every year. At that time the garden is a rolling landscape of green grass and mature tree silhouettes. A riot of colour will quickly flood the garden, but so early the repeating drifts of ‘Showwinner’ amidst carpets of Dutch crocus are more than enough to hold every visitor’s attention.
‘Abba’ is an early-flowering double flowered red tulip that also flowers early in spring and is a good choice for patio pots and containers, whereas ‘Showwinner’ is the better garden plant, with a strong constitution that should enable it to return and flower in years to come.
Emperor tulips are some of the best tulips for garden border planting where, with good drainage and room to develop, they stand a good chance of retuning year on year. Of these, ‘Madame Lefeber’ is better known as ‘Red Emperor’. Its spectacular red flowers open wide to reveal a bold black base edged in clear yellow. Since its introduction from the wild in 1906 this Fosteriana tulip has been used in breeding programmes resulting in today’s indispensable assortment of other colours including the Yellow, Orange and White emperors.
Grow ‘Red Emperor’ in a container or sheltered corner of the garden where its huge open flowers are less likely to be damaged by heavy rain and storms.
To wake up the neighbours and remind everyone that the gardening year has begun there is no better group of tulips than the Darwinhybrids. These huge, bold coloured tulips are not only for use in public parks and on traffic islands, they have many uses in our smaller garden spaces. The point is that they are tough and can easily return to flower from one year to the next. In their second and subsequent years the plants are generally smaller, likewise the flowers.
‘Red Impression’ would be my first choice here as it flowers earlier than the other Darwinhybrids. This is convenient if we intend to maintain the red colour theme on later into spring with perhaps red tulips out of the Lily-flowered and Single Late groups.
‘Parade’ is a classic red Darwinhybrid that is far better grown on its own than mixed with its yellow counterpart that is usually its fate in municipal planting schemes. And there is a new introduction that deserves our attention, ‘Jumbo Cherry’, that promises huge, goblet sized flowers in an uncompromising signal red hue.
By late spring the garden is fully awake with shrubs flowering profusely and perennials growing up fast between them. Tulips need to be tall and dramatic to stand out amidst this carnival and once again the red flowered ones are going to be the most noticable.
My favourite for this later season is ‘Red Shine’ a perfect Lily-flowered tulip. The colour is clear traffic-light red. It flowers in early May with flowers that gradually grow larger throughout its reliably long flowering period. In bright sunshine the flowers open wide revealing a pure black base.
Around about the same time the Single Late Group tulips flower, many with extraordinarily large flowers. ‘Kingsblood’ is different. The flowers are held high, but they are not especially large and as such can introduce bright spots of colour towards the back of a mixed herbaceous border when planted there in loose drifts. The colour of ‘Kingsblood’ and ‘Red Shine’ is identical and obviously the two can be mixed creatively.
Red tulips are truly indispensable, be brave and repeat the different sorts throughout your garden borders, you will make everyone who sees them very happy.