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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Tuesday - October 15, 2013

From: Milford, MI
Region: Midwest
Topic: Non-Natives, Herbs/Forbs
Title: Native alternative to tulips from Milford MI
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

What could be a good alternative to tulips? I have not seen a native plant quite like a tulip (except a tulip tree). A good alternative should bloom in April or May and have showy flowers. I searched the database and the best result was the Canadian anemone.

ANSWER:

Well, now, see, that's the thing about the evolution of plants. They evolve in a certain environment in which they are able to flourish in the conditions that prevail there. The same plant is very unlikely to evolve in another environment that is quite different. Because we are really not up to typing all this stuff, we are going to copy a paragraph about the tulip plant from Wikipedia:

"The tulip is a perennial, bulbous plant with showy flowers in the genus Tulipa, of which around 75 wild species are currently accepted  and which belongs to the family Liliaceae. The genus's native range extends west to the Iberian Peninsula, through North Africa to Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, throughout the Levant (Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan) and Iran, North to the Ukraine, southern Siberia and Mongolia, and east to the Northwest of China. The tulip's centre of diversity is in the Pamir, Hindu Kush, and Tien Shan mountains. It is a typical element of steppe and winter-rain Mediterranean vegetation. A number of species and many hybrid cultivars are grown in gardens, as potted plants, or to be displayed as fresh-cut flowers. Tulip cultivars have usually several species in their direct background, but most have been derived from Tulipa suaveolens, often erroneously listed as Tulipa schrenkii. Tulipa gesneriana is in itself an early hybrid of complex origin and is not the same taxon as was described by Conrad Gesner in the 16th century. "

That does not sound a whole lot like Oakland Co, in the southeastern portion of Michigan, does it? Just so you will know we are trying, we are going to search our Native Plant Database for members of the family Liliaceae native to  Michigan. There are 305 members of this family native to North America and 53 native to Michigan. So, we narrowed it down a little more, and added your stipulation for blooming in April and May, which got us to a more manageable 34. We looked at every single webpage of the plants on that list and found only 5 plants that came even close, and they mostly looked like small upside down tulips. These are:

Polygonatum biflorum (Smooth solomon's seal)

Prosartes trachycarpa (Roughfruit fairybells)

Trillium grandiflorum (Large-flower wakerobin)

Trillium viride (Wood wakerobin)

Uvularia sessilifolia (Spreading bellwort)

So, how about this? Go to our Native Plant Database, scroll down to the Combination Search, select on Michigan, then "herb" (herbaceous  blooming plants) under Habit, select the amount of sunlight you have under Light Requirements and April and May in blooming time. See if there is something in the resulting list that, while not looking like a tulip, looks like a plant that would be happy in your garden.

 

From the Image Gallery


Smooth solomon's seal
Polygonatum biflorum

Roughfruit fairybells
Prosartes trachycarpa

White wake-robin
Trillium grandiflorum

Wood trillium
Trillium viride

Spreading bellwort
Uvularia sessilifolia

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