California is the third largest state in land area in the United States, with nearly 156,000 square miles of land within its borders.
It is also one of the nation’s most topographically and climatologically diverse states. Within the California state lines, you will find the Sierra Nevada, the rich farmlands of the Central Valley, and the arid Mojave Desert in the south.
Because of the size and climatological range of the state, the USDA has divided California into Northern and Southern planting zones. California’s northern region ranges from Zones 5a-10b on the USDA plant hardiness scale. The southern part has Zones 5a-11a.
This is important for growers as they decide which plants and flowers will thrive in their flowerbeds and gardens. And it’s crucial when considering the star of many springtime gardens: the tulip.
Growing tulips in California looks different from region to region. As a result, gardeners need to choose between various tulip types and use different tactics depending on the zone where they reside.
Let’s explore which tulips are right for the different regions of The Golden State, as well as some best practices to help them reach their peak springtime glory.
Get to Know the Tulip
The Tulipa genus includes around 150 species with over 3,000 cultivars. They are divided into 15 different classifications based on shape, height, and when they bloom.
|Botanical name||Tulipa spp.|
|Plant Type||Perennial, bulb|
|Toxicity||Toxic to both humans and pets|
With so many tulip varieties and so many growing zones in their state, California gardeners may feel a little confused, and understandably so. So let’s clear things up a bit.
Here are eight tulips Californians can consider for their spring displays. Of course, not every variety will be suitable for every part of the state, but there are sure to be a few that will be a great fit for your home’s landscape.
1. Peony Tulip
The peony tulip is a hybrid plant that is an absolute stunner when in bloom.
As the name suggests, this flower is a cross between a peony and a tulip. Gardeners love peonies for their colorful blooms. That carries over into these lovely hybrid tulips.
The peony tulip is double-flowered, meaning it has a lot more petals than a normal tulip. There are dozens of varieties of peony tulips that come in a rainbow of colors, including yellow, white, orange, red, pink, and purple. There are multi-colored varieties, as well.
Peony tulips are recommended for growing in Zones 3-7, so gardeners in northwestern and west-central California are in the sweet spot for these beautiful tulips to thrive.
2. Parrot Tulips
The parrot tulip gets its name from its resemblance to the brightly-colored plumage of a parrot. These flamboyant flowers bring a color explosion to springtime gardens.
The large five-inch blooms come in far too many color combinations to list here, but some favorites among growers include the Irene Parrot, Apricot Parrot, Blue Parrot, Green Wave, and Texas Flame.
These gorgeous, multi-colored tulips were produced by a genetic mutation that gave them their ruffled, feathery appearance and vibrant colors.
These tulips are an excellent choice for many California growers as they are recommended for growing up to Zone 8. This includes virtually all of the northern and northwestern parts of the state, as well as the west-central region.
3. Orange Emperor Tulip
The Orange Emperor Tulip, not surprisingly, displays a vibrant orange bloom. That bloom is also quite large, hence the “Emperor” part of the name.
Part of the Fosteriana tulip group, this tulip variety is quite hardy. It’s also recommended up to Zone 8, but growers in cooler zones need to pay special attention. This early-blooming tulip can handle cold, unpredictable spring conditions.
If the Orange Emperor variety isn’t available, you can find other Fosteriana tulips in hues of white, cream, light and dark pink, and red. They all make great choices for California tulip gardens.
4. Abba Tulip
The Abba Tulip is a Double Early tulip. Double Early Tulips are hybridized, double versions of Single Early Tulips.
The Abba displays a tomato-red bloom with a yellow heart. It has been growing in popularity ever since its debut in 1951.
Like most other Single and Double Early tulips, the Abba has a sturdy stem that can withstand high winds and heavy rain. The recommended growing zones range from Zones 3-8, making it a versatile choice for many California tulip gardeners. It may even be a good option for growers who live in regions warmer than Zone 8 if they’re willing to “cheat.” More on that in a bit.
5. Acropolis Tulip
Part of the Darwin Hybrid group of tulips, the Acropolis derives its name from the ancient Athenian citadel. Like its namesake, the Acropolis Tulip is a tall, regal flower with iridescent rosy-pink flowers. The blooms also tend to last longer than many other tulip varieties, so that you can enjoy these majestic petals for a long time.
Like other Darwin Hybrids, the stems are both long and strong. They can withstand high winds and unpredictable conditions. The recommended zone for growing them is up to Zone 8, making them an excellent option for many California tulip gardeners.
6. Alibi Tulip
The Alibi Tulip is officially recommended for growing up to Zone 8 (you’re probably noticing a pattern here, as that’s the common recommendation for many tulip varieties). However, this tulip is known to bend the rules.
Alibis are part of the Triumph Tulip group, and Triumphs tend to endure warmer climates better than some other tulip varieties. So, for example, Sacramento residents reside in Zone 9, but they may want to give this variety a good look. It will mean a change in growing tactics, though. More on that below.
7. French Single Late
California tulip gardeners in warmer zones must place this flower near the top of their lists.
This variety is a genetic mutation of the Single Early tulip. It still has some of those Single Early qualities. It’s a strong flower with a stout stem that can stand up to the elements.
But this particular mutation is big. As it, really big. French Single Lates can grow to two feet high, with large blooms to match. So if you’re looking for subtle, this is certainly not the flower for you!
One of the best qualities of the French Single Late is that it is particularly adept at growing in warmer zones. It must be said that the official recommendation for growing this variety still ends at Zone 8, like many others. But if you’re willing to do some gardening hacks, they can grow well in warmer regions, too.
8. Hocus Pocus Tulip
Want a tulip that can handle the heat? Abracadabra! Meet the Hocus Pocus Tulip.
These magical beauties feature large, lily-like blooms in a spectacular bright yellow color with red flame-like accents.
They are also one of the most heat-tolerant tulips on the market. Some experts claim the Hocus Pocus tulip is rated for growing in zones as high as Zone 9. With the right preparations, you might even exceed that. So gardeners in the warmer California zones should give this variety a lot of consideration.
Now that you have some tulip varieties in mind that correspond with your local hardiness zone, let’s talk about some best practices for tulip planting. As you’ll see, these practices will vary widely based on the different climates in California.
A successful spring tulip bloom starts months earlier with bulb selection.
Healthy tulip bulbs grow healthy tulips. Unhealthy bulbs grow, well, you get the idea.
Look for bulbs that are dry and firm. Quality tulip bulbs will be beige-white with a paperlike outer jacket.
Don’t use bulbs that have discolorations or mold spots. If a bulb is soft or squishy, discard it.
Select the largest bulbs that appear to be healthy. Larger bulbs have a larger storehouse of nutrients to feed the tulip as it grows.
When to Plant
The timing for bulb planting is all about the zone where you reside. This is where we will begin to see the significant differences in cultivation practice between California gardeners depending on what part of the state they live in.
One thing remains true, regardless of where you are: tulip bulbs require a cold stratification period to emerge from dormancy. If the bulb isn’t exposed to this cold period, the tulip will not grow.
Planting at the correct time is critical to providing the proper stratification period. For example, it would be ideal when the temperature drops to 55°F.
For gardeners in Zone 5, that usually means it’s best to plant in late October or early November. In Zones 6-8, the general rule of thumb is to plant bulbs from mid-November through December.
But what about the warmer zones? The soil in these warmer zones will never drop below 55°F, or if it does, it won’t stay that cool for long. So what do those growers do? They hack the system.
Chilling Tulip Bulbs
Tulip growers who reside in Zone 7 and below can skip this step. Growers in Zone 8 need to pay attention. And for those in Zones 9 and up, this is mandatory if they want to grow spring tulips.
Instead of planting tulip bulbs in the fall as gardeners in colder zones do, growers in these warmer, hardiness zones will need to chill tulip bulbs in a refrigerator prior to planting. This refrigeration mimics the cold stratification period that the bulbs would experience naturally in colder climates.
It is recommended to chill bulbs for 10-14 weeks before planting. If you choose to go longer than that, go for it. But don’t go any shorter, or you risk stunting the biochemical response taking place in the bulbs. That likely means that the tulips won’t grow after planting.
When chilling tulip bulbs in the fridge, good air circulation is important. If the bulbs are in a bag or container without ventilation, they will retain too much moisture and rot. Store refrigerated bulbs in a box or bag that allows air to circulate freely.
Also, you must remove all fruit from the refrigerator before chilling the bulbs. Ripening fruits (especially apples) emit ethylene gas, which can harm the embryonic flowers inside the bulbs.
After the bulbs have chilled for the needed time, they are ready to be planted. In the warmer zones of California, planting chilled bulbs in late December or early January is generally recommended.
Where to Plant
Tulips love the sun and dislike being waterlogged. So choose a spot that gets some good rays each day but also one that drains well. If you reside in one of California’s warmer zones, say Zone 8 and up, some afternoon shade would be a good idea, so the harsh midday sun doesn’t bake the blooms in your garden.
Some gardeners like to add fertilizer to give their tulips a few additional nutrients. This is especially recommended for those who will be growing tulips in less-than-ideal tulip conditions. A slow-release fertilizer with a nutrient ratio of 9-9-6 is ideal.
If you’d rather use an organic mix, you can use equal parts greensand, bone meal, and blood meal.
Plant the bulbs pointed side up, about 8-10 inches deep, and spaced 3-4 inches apart.
Tulip bulbs contain alkaloid and glycoside compounds that are mildly toxic to humans and moderately toxic to pets.
Gardening gloves are highly recommended when handling bulbs or blooms to prevent a skin rash commonly known as “tulip fingers.”
As with many flowers, there are some pests that can do some severe damage to your tulips. Here are a few of the main culprits and what you can do about them.
Aphids are a common pest, especially in southern California. And tulips are a favorite on the aphid menu.
Aphids can often be found on the underside of the leaves. Without treatment, these insects can destroy your tulip garden.
One tried-and-true method of detecting aphids is to watch for the presence of ants. Ants and aphids have a symbiotic relationship. The ants eat the excretion of the aphids (known as honeydew), and in return, the ants protect the aphids.
A handful of ants may not mean much, but if you see large numbers of ants attracted to your tulips, you may have an aphid infestation.
If aphids have already invaded your tulips, there are some options to eliminate them.
If the infestation is still small enough, you can dip a cotton swap in rubbing alcohol and apply it directly to the insects.
For larger aphid problems, insecticidal soap is a highly effective and environmentally safe choice.
Chemical pesticides are also an option, but it’s best to try the other methods first. It’s better for the environment and safer for you.
These arachnids can also wreak havoc on a tulip garden. They suck the juices from the plant, leaving yellow or white specks on their leaves.
Although spider mites aren’t technically insects, insecticidal soap is also effective at controlling these infestations.
Wildlife can be just as big, or an even bigger, threat to your tulip garden than creepy-crawly pests. Lots of animals love to eat tulip bulbs, leaves, and flowers.
Squirrels proliferate California and are the bane of many Golden State gardeners. These rodents love to dig up and much on freshly planted tulip bulbs. The same can be said for chipmunks. Planting bulbs at a deeper depth, as recommended above, can deter them.
Rabbits can also be a headache for growers. They love to munch on new tulip shoots as they emerge from the ground.
Mule deer are also a regular issue for California tulip gardeners. These herbivores are drawn to tulips like kids to Halloween candy.
If rabbits and/or deer are a problem, you can use a commercial repellent to keep them away. It may not stop them completely, but it could slow them down a good bit.
Growing tulips in California can be a bit of an adventure. For growers in some cooler zones, it’s not difficult at all to feature stunning tulip displays every spring. Gardeners in warmer regions will have to put in a little extra planning and effort. But when adjustments are made to the specific growing localities, tulips can adorn gardens all over The Golden State!
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