Gardening Q&A: How to avoid tulip fire

Once in the ground the disease persists for several years, making it impossible to successfully grow tulips where it is present

Q: I’ve always loved growing tulips in my garden but this year they flowered really badly, with stunted-looking yellow leaves and blotchy, distorted flowers. Any advice as to what I’m doing wrong? I don’t want to spend time and money planting them this autumn only for it to happen again. SL, Co Meath

What a shame. These bulbous plants are one of the great joys of the spring garden, with their long-lasting, graceful flowers and early blooming habit making them the perfect prequel to late spring and early summer-flowering shrubs and perennials. As a rule they’re also very easy to grow, with each bulb’s nascent flower and leaves already tucked up tight inside it by the time you get it. All that it typically needs is time and the right growing conditions to bloom, which means planting the fleshy bulbs in a moist but free-draining soil in full sun or light shade.

Unfortunately the tulip’s biggest enemy is tulip fire or Botrytis tulipae, a very destructive fungal disease that causes the symptoms you’ve described. Carried Trojan horse-like into gardens and allotments via infected bulbs bought unwittingly by gardeners, it thrives in warm, wet soil conditions, which is why it’s always recommended to hold off planting tulips until late autumn/early winter when ground conditions are typically colder.

Once in the ground the disease persists for several years, making it impossible to successfully grow tulips where it’s present. For this reason it’s important to source your tulip bulbs from a reputable supplier and to always carefully inspect any new bulbs for signs of the small black sclerotia (the tiny fungal spores by which it spreads). Likewise, if you do spot signs of tulip fire in your garden in spring it’s important to quickly dig up, bag and then bin all parts of the infected plants, making sure to clean all gardening tools and clothing after doing so.


In the case of your garden I’m afraid that you’ll need to grow your tulips in pots for the next four years to protect them from possible infection (the good news is that tulips look great in containers and don’t resent these slightly cramped growing conditions). Once that time period is up I’d then recommend adopting a crop-rotation plan to minimise the chances of the disease taking hold again

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon is an Irish Times contributor specialising in gardening