Tulips are perhaps one of the most recognisable garden plants, and have been cultivated since the 13th Century for their showy flowers. Our collection concentrates purely on the species, representing about 60 of the 100 or so that occur in the wild, distributed across Europe to Central Asia, where they reach their greatest diversity.
Our National Collection of Tulipa (species only) is believed to be the only surviving collection in the country recognised under the Ministry of Agriculture’s special collection scheme that was introduced after the Second World War. The origins of the collection, however, go back much further and lie in a tragedy. William Dykes, master of Charterhouse School, keen amateur gardener and botanist, and Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), was a passionate collector of two bulbous genera, Tulipa and Iris. Sadly, in November 1925, only a week after receiving the Victoria Medal of Honour from the RHS, Dykes was killed in a motoring accident.
The Botanic Garden’s archive contains a letter dated May 1926 inviting the Garden’s Director, Humphrey Gilbert-Carter, to purchase 1/12 syndicate share in the late Mr Dyke’s tulip collection, urging that ‘It seems to me a pity that these rare and uncommon bulbs should be sold outside this country’. Purchase of the syndicate share was achieved through the generous patronage of Reginald Cory, a lifelong benefactor of the Garden, for Gilbert-Carter writes to Cory in 1927, ‘Dyke’s Tulips make the finest show I have seen in the Garden. I put a short notice in the ‘Review’ about them, and great numbers of people come to admire them’. It seems appropriate that the collection has continued under the later National Collection scheme, administered by Plant Heritage (formerly NCCPG).
At present the collection is grown in pots housed in the behind-the-scenes Alpine Yard. As they come into flower, they are brought through into the Mountains display of the Glasshouse Range, where they make a wonderful display from February through to late May. Many also grow well on the Limestone Rock Garden, including Tulipa clusiana and Tulipa dasystemon.
The species tulips need sharp drainage and do best in a rockery or scree garden. We cultivate our collection in pots for display in a cool glasshouse so we can control conditions and provide protection for the open flowers which otherwise can be damaged in the variable spring weather.
The array of tulip cultivars and selections available to the gardener is vast and 'Tulipomania', the tulip-collecting fever that infected Holland and large parts of Northern Europe during the 17th century, is well documented. Whilst cultivated tulips aren’t part of the National Collection, we make use of two of the best - tangerine-coloured 'Ballerina' and dark plum 'Queen of the Night' - in a vivid combination in the Dry Garden.