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Tulips and Siamese tulips

April 24, 2010

In Europe and North America we love growing tulips. Many tulip species originate in the mountain areas of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and eastwards. Some tulips have been naturalized outside its natural range, even in Sweden. The genus Tulipa is a member of the Lily family (Liliaceae). It survives the cold winters as a bulb. This bulb demands a period of cold, or it will not produce new green shots. This is a reason why tulips rarely grow in tropical gardens. Some people, including myself, have played with refrigerator storage to induce cold, but like so many other temperate species, they succumb during the heavy monsoon rains. An option would be to put them in cold storage during the rainy season, and then plant them out in the dry, cold season, and harvest the bulbs around Songkran. Many public Thai gardens show exotics like tulips, but they have been imported, and will only be used once. In conclusion, we may have to find a tropical substitute for tulips. The best one is perhaps the Siamese Tulip!

The Siamese Tulip is not a tulip at all, but it DOES resemble one. It belongs to the genus Curcuma in the ginger family (Zingiberaceae). Many Siamese Tulips are native to Thai forests, and there are many man-made hybrids available as garden ornamentals. In April, around Songkran (the Thai New Year), you put the tuberous roots or rhizomes in the soil. When the rains begin, usually in May, the pseudostems (the leaf bundles, like in bananas) will emerge. The tulipy appearance is due to the coloured top bracts (modified leaves) which, unlike the tulip flowers, may last many months. Sometimes this sterile but beautiful top is called “coma”. The flowers of the Curcuma develop in pouches between the  often green bracts below the coma. After the rainy season, usually in November, the curcumas will start drying out. Like with tulips, it is important the leaves of the curcumas turn brown before you harvest the roots. If you harvest the roots while the leaves are green, all the nutrients in the leaves will be lost. If you wait until the leaves turn brown, the nutrients will be in the root. This means that senescent curcumas are unattractive, why you want to mix them with some other plants that cover the brown leaves. Keep the roots in a dry place until next mid April. You can also allow a natural cycle, i.e. plant out your curcumas and do nothing, i.e. do not water when it gets dry.

Good luck!

Eric Danell, lifetime member of the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society

Snow-White is a garden curcuma-hybrid which you can admire at Dokmai Garden during the rainy season.

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