Red flowering alpine tulip species growing wild on a rocky coast line
How to grow species tulips from seed

When it comes to types of tulips you will find that most of what is available in plant retail outlets are hybrids. This means that they are the result of deliberate cross breeding, a technique used by plant breeders to help enhance and stabilise favoured characteristics. In order to build up stocks as well as to maintain these characteristics from generation to generation it becomes necessary to vegetatively propagate them by either using offset bulbs or micro-propagation. Propagating cross-bred plant stock by seed unfortunately produces mixed results as the hybridization technique will result in seedlings that have mixed combinations of the characteristics demonstrated by either or both parent plants.

Fortunately, this isn't the case when it comes to growing species tulips from seed as this group of plants do not easily cross pollinate with other tulip species. In some cases - such as Tulipa wilsoniana - the flowers are hermaphrodite and able to pollinate and produce viable seed amongst themselves.

Silver coloured paper thin tulip seed
How to grow species tulips from seed
Once the flowers of your species tulip have been pollinated it is just a matter of waiting for the seed and seed pods to form and mature. Once the pods turn brown they are ready to remove. If you can catch the seeds as soon as they ripen it's possible to get away with planting them immediately into pots using a free draining seed compost. For alpine varieties, sow the seeds on top of the compost, covering with a thin layer of horticultural grit, water, and then leave in a cold-frame to germinate. For other tulip varieties, cover with a thin layer of compost of no more than 1 cm. Some varieties such as Tulipa sprengeri may still need to go through the winter before their seeds can germinate.

If you are late in picking the seed pods then the seed coats inside will naturally begin to harden and will need a period of dormancy before they can germinate. Carefully remove the pods and take them to a bright and wind-free environment such as a greenhouse or potting shed.

Open up the pods and remove the seeds - placing them onto a ceramic plate where they can be allowed to dry for a week or so. In their natural habitat tulip seeds will have two or three months of cold weather with which to break their dormancy, but you can replicate this by placing ripe seed in a damp paper towel enclosed in a plastic bag and leaving it in the fridge for a similar period. This is particularly important is you are in an area prone to mild or warm winters.

Once this period has finished, remove the seeds from the fridge and sow them on top of good free-draining compost topped off with no more than 1 cm of compost. Leave outside in a bright warm position or in a south-facing cold frame. Seeds from different tulip species will germinate a different rates so be patient as could take any time from a month up to a year before germination occurs.  Keep the pots watered over late spring and summer and once the new shoots have been growing for a couple of months feed once a week with a half normal dose of standard liquid fertiliser over the growing period. Plant out into open ground the following year.

Main image - By Gideon Pisanty (Gidip) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
In text image - Eric Guinther (Marshman at en.wikipedia)

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