Tulip Mysteries Solved

March 21, 2017

With our abnormally early spring this year, I’ve been listening closely to longtime farmers and gardeners alike to find out what to expect from plants whose clocks got all messed up. An interesting topic of discussion was new to me – short tulips.

We’re not talking a little shorter than what the package says its height should be. Or even half of what its height should be. This is about stumpy, weird tulip heads at the very base of the plant that mature to dwarfed versions of what they usually look like.

There are various reasons this can happen, like planting tulips too deeply in the ground (or insert any “it’s all my fault” reason here). But with many flower farmers around the midwest grumbling about a bad crop already, the most likely reason for this is the mostly mild winter we’ve had. If tulips don’t get enough cold for enough time, the flower will develop too low on its stem. (If you have ever seen bulb companies offer to ship “pre-chilled bulbs” to southern states, this is why.)

There’s another issue likely to have caused additional stress for our usually-carefree tulips – drought a few weeks before the flower begins to develop. ” ‘Tulips like moisture in the spring and to be baked in the summer. The time when they need the most water is three or four weeks before they flower,’ ” Chris Blom told The Guardian after a year where many Londoners were puzzled over their super-short tulips. That statement reminded me that WE here in the Saint Louis area had a bit of a drought right before and while it warmed up in February. Double wham. Nature can be cruel like that.

But short tulips this year have no bearing on next year’s flowering – if the weather behaves (ha!), they’ll be back to their normal, near-predicted height in the garden and on the farm. But this season’s stunted tulips can serve as a reminder than drastic changes in weather affect everything – even a small bulb.