Tulip vs. Ranunculus: Two Iconic Flowers of Springtime

Tulip vs. ranunculus
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Written by Sandy Porter

Updated: March 15, 2023

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When it comes to springtime, there are two iconic flowers most of us look for as the sign that the new season, full of life, is truly upon us: the tulip and the ranunculus. But what makes these beautiful blooming plants different from each other? They’re both colorful, abundant, and symbolize new life.

We’ll check out the differences below.

Daydream tulips in full open stage

Award-winning, early-blooming Darwin Hybrid Tulip ‘Daydream’ is a captivating beauty with sunny yellow blossoms aging to luminous, apricot to orange as they mature

©iStock.com/Kristine Radkovska

TulipRanunculus
ClassificationTulipa, over 400 species, thousands of hybrids and cultivarsRanunculus; 600+ species
DescriptionTulips are bulb plants that come in a wide range of colors – almost any shade found in nature, save true blue – with 2 to 3 blue-green leaves growing from the stem of the base.Ranunculus come in a wide range of colors, both bright and pastel. They have paper-thin petals, often compared to parchment, and grow alternating, fern-like leaves.
UsesTulips are used in many ways, including as a culinary garnish or salad addition, medicinally for skin treatments, and as both show flower and cut flower.Ranunculi are used ornamentally for bouquets (particularly weddings), flower vases, and flower gardens. They are particularly useful for pollinator gardens.
Origins and growing preferencesTulips originated in Asia in several regions, including Iran and areas along the Chinese-Russian border. They need full sun and well-draining soil, as well as protection from underground critters that love eating plant bulbs.These flowers originated in central Asia and were brought westward. Ranunculi require full sun to partial shade, moist, well-draining soil, and cold winters in which they may go dormant.
Fun facts and special notesEach color of tulip represents a different message or emotion. Red is for romance, yellow for cheerfulness, white for apologies, and purple for royalty.Ranunculi symbolize love and affection and are given as gifts denoting admiration from lovers, or affection for mothers and self.

Key Differences Between Tulip and Ranunculus

Tulips and ranunculus flowers are both beautiful, springtime flowers that folks associate with happy seasons, Easter, and new life, but there are many differences to consider as you decide which plant to choose for your garden.

Tulip vs. Ranunculus: Classification

Ranunculus

Orange ranunculus in a flower bed, a vibrant flower loved by pollinators.

©PV productions/Shutterstock.com

Tulips belong to the Tulipa genus, in the lily family, or Liliaceae family. The plants are bulbous, meaning they are cultivated from bulbs rather than seeds. There are about 100 species and 4000 or more varieties or cultivars and hybrids available in the world. The plant comes from various parts of Asia, particularly Anatolia, Iran, the steppe of Kazakhstan, and along the Chinese-Russian border. Tulips are the national flower of both Iran and Turkey, with early European cultivation in Holland (the Netherlands). The plant requires a cool to cold climate and cannot be grown outdoors in tropical climates because it requires a cold winter season for dormancy.

Ranunculus plants belong to the Ranunculus genus, part of the Ranunculacea family, with over 600 varieties of flowering perennial and annual plants. Among the plant genus is the buttercup, a generic term often used for the flowers in the family, but not all ranunculi are buttercups. The plant is herbaceous and a strong choice for pollinator gardens. Cultivars of ranunculi are among the most purchased cut flowers in the world, with popular hybrid strains like ‘Aviv’, ‘Tomer,’ and ‘Telecote’ producing large, peony-esque blooms. The flowers come in a wide range of colors, many of which influence the name of their cultivars, such as the ‘Telecote Red.’

Tulip vs. Ranunculus: Description

Helmar Rembrandt Tulips

Helmar Rembrandt tulips, one of many hybrids designed with unique DNA to have variegated appearance.

©Alex Manders/Shutterstock.com

Though there are more than 4000 varieties, cultivars, and hybrids of tulips, each plant produces 2 to 3 thick, blue-green leaves that cluster at the base of the plant. The plant then produces a solitary bell-shaped flower in most cases, with three petals and three sepals, six stamens, and a three-lobed ovary. The plant produces fruit as a capsule with multiple seeds. Tulips are primarily propagated from their bulbs and not the seeds. The flowers are either single bloom or double bloom and come in a huge range of colors.

  • Pure white
  • Off-white
  • Yellow
  • Red
  • Orange
  • Pink
  • Striped
  • Cream
  • Violet
  • Lilac
  • Purple
  • Deep purple – almost black
  • Brownish red

Basically, any color you can think of, there is probably that shade available in tulips, except true blue coloring.

Ranunculus flowers are often called buttercups, but as noted above, those are only one variety of flowers within the family. A general overview of ranunculi flowers, though, is common among most varieties. The flowers are voluminous, with paper-thin petals in a wide range of bright or pastel shades, both perennials and annuals. The plant, growing from a tuberous root, typically develops stems up to 12 inches tall, with lush, alternating, fern-like leaves. Atop the stems, cup-shaped flowers bloom in either single or double forms, as wide as 2 inches. The flowers may be red, yellow, orange, pink, purple, or white and off-white shades, as well as bi-color forms.

Tulip vs. Ranunculus: Uses

woman arranging tulips in vase

Both flowers are popular as cut flowers for use in the home.

©Mariia Boiko/Shutterstock.com

Tulips are some of the most popular flowers in the world, ranking up there with roses and carnations. You can use the beautiful flowers as ornamental blooms in spring gardens, frequently in flower vases, wedding bouquets, show gardens, as field flowers, and as potted plants as gifts. The stunning flowers, though, aren’t just for show. People have used them for centuries in herbal and traditional medicines although the cost is limiting. You can use the blossoms to make poultices to calm stings and insect bites, heal scratches and soothe itchy skin. Because of this, companies frequently use tulips in skincare products. They crush red tulips and use them as natural blushes and concealers. They are also highly edible and used raw or cooked, often garnishing salads.

Ranunculi are similarly popular as attractive flowers for wedding bouquets and flower vases, as gifts to show admiration and affection, as ornamentals in flower and bee gardens, and as potted plants for container gardens and indoor plants. The plants, however, are toxic. Despite some people using them for folk medicines and fad uses, do not ingest the plant. The toxins in ranunculi can irritate the skin, the lining of the stomach and mouth, and the intestines. Avoid products containing ranunculi and instead, use the flowers in the garden or bouquets.

Tulip vs. Ranunculus: Origins and Growing Preferences

Bee on a yellow buttercup flower

Buttercups belong to the ranunculus family.

©olko1975/Shutterstock.com

There’s a little debate on exactly when and how tulips became popular. We know they are native to Asia along the Chinese-Russian border, were cultivated during the Ottoman Empire, and were present in Persia (Iran) during the 10th Century. They were introduced to the western world when an ambassador received bulbs as gifts and brought them home to the Netherlands. He gave them to Carolus Closius, an already avid bulb grower, who cultivated the bulbs which eventually became a major industry in Holland.

To grow healthy tulips, you’ll need to plant them deep in the soil, between 6 and 8 inches down, about 4 to 6 inches apart. Place the bulbs in pointed end up. Feed the bulbs with balance fertilizers in the fall when you plant them and, ideally, grow them in holes with kitty litter or crushed gravel in them or fine wire baskets to deter moles and mice from snacking on them. They do best when planted in full sun.

Ranunculus originated in central Asia and eventually made its way to Europe, North America, and South America. The flowers in this family are fairly widespread. The most commonly known in Europe and North America is the buttercup which is so prolific it is sometimes considered a weed. It grows naturally in swampy areas.

Ranunculus need full sun to partial shade, in well-drained, moist (but not soggy!) soil. They’re cold hardy in Zones 8 to 11. They’re easy to grow, as implied by the “weed” issue they have become for some, and are perennials, so they’ll come back year after year.

Tulip vs. Ranunculus: Special Features and Fun Facts

Purple crystal tulip

These colorful flowers are great for cutting and attracting butterflies! – Purple ones denote royalty.

©Krystal V.A./Shutterstock.com

Both tulips and ranunculus flowers have intriguing histories, fun facts, and interesting details about them.

Tulips are generally thought of as Dutch flowers, but they’re actually originally Asian flowers. They are wildflowers native to the Tien Shan Mountains along the Chinese-Russian border. But once they were taken to Holland, they became “a thing.” The Netherlands was home to Carolus Clusius, a botanist, who received tulip bulbs and grew them privately and refused to “share.” However, his tulip gardens were frequently raided and the bulbs stolen and sold — thus creating the initial tulip industry in the country.

When you hear the term “Tulip mania” you’re probably thinking of folks going gaga for tulips. Well, it is that, but because of their huge popularity in Holland, there was an immense rush on them for three years in the 1630s and sellers jacked up their prices hoping to profiteer. However, in the height of the craze, too many actually sold at the same time and the tulip market crashed.

Each tulip color holds special significance for folks. In general, the flower symbolizes love. Red tulips represent romantic love, purple tulips denote royalty, yellow tulips encourage cheerfulness and white tulips are used for apologies. And those striped tulips you love? The original unique coloration is actually caused by a virus carried by aphids. Now, we manufacture the coloring in labs, using DNA from the virus to alter the flowers, just without the sap-sucking insects’ involvement.

Ranunculus, on the other hand, have their own unique special notes and fun facts. For instance, the name is a combination of two Latin words, rana and unculus. Rana means “frog” and unculusmeans “little”: therefore, the flowers are named “little frog.” The belief is that the name came from the flower’s native environments along rivers in southwestern Asia, where little frogs spring up everywhere and frequent the flowers. But for Native Americans, the ranunculus is known as “coyote eyes.” There’s lore about a coyote wanting to play, so he “threw” his eyes into the air and caught them again and again. An eagle swooped down, though, and caught them for himself. Because he could no longer see, the coyote plucked two buttercups and used them for his eyes instead.

If you ever played the game as a kid, holding up a buttercup to your chin to “see if you like butter” you might have witnessed a sort of yellow glow on your chin or a playmate’s. The coloration, of course, has nothing to do with dairy preferences, but rather with the reflection of UV light. The petals have mirror flat cells that actually bounce back light, reflecting the UV light in an effort to attract bees. They look vibrant from any angle for this reason. (Perhaps this is where the Native American legend comes from – the glowing petals of the flower looking a bit like distant yellow, glowing eyes?)

Ranunculi are also symbols of love and affection. They are often used as wedding flowers and are sent to those you admire, symbolizing charm and attractiveness since the Victorian era. They’re frequently chosen for Mother’s Day, wedding anniversaries, and as signs of self-love in bouquets chosen by folks needing a sunny burst of encouragement.


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About the Author

Sandy Porter is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering house garden plants, mammals, reptiles, and birds. Sandy has been writing professionally since 2017, has a Bachelor’s degree and is currently seeking her Masters. She has had lifelong experience with home gardens, cats, dogs, horses, lizards, frogs, and turtles and has written about these plants and animals professionally since 2017. She spent many years volunteering with horses and looks forward to extending that volunteer work into equine therapy in the near future. Sandy lives in Chicago, where she enjoys spotting wildlife such as foxes, rabbits, owls, hawks, and skunks on her patio and micro-garden.

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