Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Mystery of the Droopy-Headed Tulips

These 'Don Quichotte' tulips in my pond gardens are the worst-hit ones. Why is this happening?

Yes, the name of this post sounds like the title of a mystery novel, doesn't it? But it's a real-life mystery to me why some of my tulips are suddenly drooping over (and others are not). I thought I might show my problem and ask if any readers have ever experienced this, and what might have caused it.

The temperature did get down to 28 degrees F (-2 degrees C) about a week and a half ago. Perhaps the stems froze and only a week later they began to droop as the tulips became past their prime. However, some tulips were much later than others to bloom, only starting a day or so ago and some have been blooming for weeks, and there doesn't seem to be any correlation between bloom date and drooping.

Another possible explanation is that the farmer who farms the fields around us was out spraying the fields with Roundup and 2,4-D on Thursday -- could some of the spray have drifted over and damaged the tulips? (He is sympathetic to my gardens: he was careful not to spray the edge next to our orchard because the wind was blowing in that direction, but it's possible that even from some distance the spray could have been enough to do them in.) However, not all the tulips in a given area are affected (at least not yet).

And I did spray most of my tulips with Deer Stopper, a spray containing mint and rosemary oils together with "putrid egg solids." (It really smells OK to me, like mint, not like foul rotten eggs, and it does seem to work pretty well.) But I guess it's possible some ingredient damaged them, although a Google search doesn't turn up any complaints about it.

It's also possible that because the deer did munch some tulip foliage before the buds formed, that affected them. But some of the droopy tulips are in areas where the deer did not get to them.

I understand that gardening is filled with unknowns, mystifying problems that afflict our gardens, and mysterious plant deaths. I get this. But I'd still like to know why this has happened (it hasn't happened before, at least not in the last five years or so).

Here are a few shots of the problem:

'White Triumphator.' Not looking so triumphant these days....

Pink tulips in the North Border. Very sad.

These 'Conqueror' tulips in the Yellow Garden are drooping, but the ones at the end of the path ('Golden Apeldoorn,' 'Kikomachi,' and 'Jaap Groot') still look fine. Hmmm.

More 'White Triumphator' in the White Garden.

These 'Spring Green' are truly a sad sight.

But these mixed Darwin Hybrid tulips in the Mint Circle are still upright (if almost done blooming).

And these 'Ollioles' inside my fence are fine too, as are a number of other tulips throughout my gardens.

It's a grave mystery. Has this happened to any of you? Thanks for reading and for your advice! -Beth


  1. Oh, Beth, what a shame ... are they hiding their heads in sorrow or embarrassment?

    You know, of course, that I have no experience with tulips, so let's look at this engaging mystery from what I can observe from the photos alone.

    1. There is no evidence of disease or pests. That leaves morphological and environmental factors.

    2. Morphology. There is a huge difference here. The last two photos show thicker, stouter stems and flower heads barely above the leaves. The first pictures with the drooping flowers, on the other hand, show thinner, slimmer, weaker stems and in some cases a ratio of 2:1 stems to leaves. In other words, the stems are twice as tall as the leaves.

    3. Environmental factors.
    The most obvious one here is the fence. The last picture shows tulips protected by the fence. Also mass is important, the Darwins are in a thicker mass as well as being near a fence. Only a few purple Darwins on taller stems show any droopiness. You can see where this is leading, can't you?

    All the droopiness goes in one direction only. And in most cases it begins right above the foliage.

    Now comes the hard part for me because I can't tell direction from the photos. But the question is: Are all the drooping heads pointing in the same direction? Have you had any cold wind? Was the low temperature accompanied by wind? You can actually see some stems with a crease in them where they almost broke. Was this caused by wind or frost?

    1. Hi Jane, Thanks so much for helping me try to figure this out -- I like your scientific and rational approach to diagnosing this problem.

      As far as the stems to leaves ratio, I wonder if the weather could have had any effect on the tulips, namely days in the 80s in early April, but then 28 degrees overnight on April 23rd. I know that our asparagus that came up on the 23rd was mush by the next afternoon. I wonder if the tulips could have similarly suffered? Perhaps they grew faster than usual, elongating their necks, which then froze?

      And your question about direction is a very smart one. Both the White Triumphator groups are drooping north, as are the yellow Conquerors. But the Pond Garden pink tulips (the worst and earliest to droop) are drooping to the south. The pink tulips in the North Border seem to be drooping to the south and east. Spring Green is drooping to the west. So it doesn't appear that there is any definite pattern to the direction of drooping.

      When the farmer sprayed, the wind was out of the northeast. But now that I look at photos from the day before he sprayed, some of the tulips were already bending, so the spray is probably not the culprit.

      Arrgh! I suppose it will remain a mystery.... But I greatly appreciate your questions to try to help me find answers. Thanks! :-) -Beth

  2. Tulips will droop if the weather is too hot and dry, but a sudden drop in temperature, such as the cold you mentioned is most likely responsible. To avoid this it is better to plant the bulbs a bit later in the autumn so that they remain dormant until after the cold has passed.

    1. Hi Rosemary, most of these tulips were planted several years ago. The weather has been warm and windy for the past few days, but you're right, it's probably the freeze last week that did it. Thanks for your help/

  3. This is really new to me, so I have no experience with this. The most obvious is an abrupt difference in temperature, I think.

    1. Hi Janneke, You're probably right, the frost last week probably affected them. Oh well, they'll probably be all right next year, and I can regard this as an interesting episode.... Thanks for your suggestion, and for reading. -Beth

  4. What a mystery! I was interested to read others' thoughts on this phenomenon.

    1. So you are not having this problem, Beth? I was hoping someone else in Iowa would have seen this before. I emailed the Extension and the guy replied that he thought the freeze and/or perhaps the hot, dry weather together might be responsible. He hasn't seen it in other gardens though. Boy, I hope I don't have some kind of Tulip Blight.... Thanks for responding! -Beth

  5. It's a disappointment to see so many lovely tulips in the garden drooping. I'm afraid I don't know enough about growing tulips to be of help, although I did wonder whether it was something to do with a sudden change in temperature. Also, most seem to be in exposed areas on your land and perhaps vulnerable to windy weather which might blow in different directions from day-to-day. The ones near the fence by the house where it's more sheltered appear not to have been touched. In my own garden I've noticed that tulips with a large, heavy cup seem more likely to bend over. I quite like the look of a vase of tulips with stems that bend naturally rather than standing stiffly upright, but the stems are a fragile part of the plant and easily damaged by adverse weather conditions.

    1. Thanks for reading about my problem, Linda. I think it was probably the freeze that did it, as it's always windy here and my tulips (some of which are the same exact tulips as last year) have never had this problem in the past. Oh well, chances are they will be fine next year. Thanks again! -Beth

  6. Very strange! I've never had that happen, though I don't grow a lot of tulips. I'm thinking the temperature differences as well, and maybe some varieties are more susceptible to the cold than others, though I would only be guessing as well. That is too bad!

    1. Yes, I think you're probably right about the temperature drop being the culprit, Indie. Oh, well. It probably won't damage them permanently, so I'll just look forward to next year's blooms. Thanks for reading! -Beth