Tulips – What’s eating my tulip leaves?


Something at night eats the leaves of my budding tulips. But it doesn’t touch the daffodil plants. What could be the reason and solution?


There are a number of creatures that might be feasting on those delicious tulip leaves.

Caterpillars, snails and slugs commonly eat tulip leaves (as well as flowers).  Caterpillars will leave roundish bite marks on the leaves.  When slugs or snails are the culprits, they often shred the leaf margins and may leave holes and yellowed leaves.  Often there’s a shiny mucous trail evident.  Watch for them and hand pick them off the plants.  For slugs/snails, head out at night with a flashlight and look on the undersides of the leaves to see if something slimy is there.

Thrips are slender, black, winged insects that can leave small black puncture wounds on the leaves, creating a yellow pattern with teeny pale spots.  If you think these are the bad guys in your garden, use a strong spray from the garden hose a few times a day to physically remove them from the leaves.  Prune off any infested leaves and discard.  Aphids can also attack tulip leaves, the leaves would be distorted looking and sticky from the honeydew the insects secrete.  They are also found on the undersides of leaves and a strong spray of water from a hose will topple them from the plants.  I don’t believe that your plants are being infested by either of these insects, however, as you describe that the leaves are being “eaten”.

Rabbits also love tulip leaves, and they usually make sharp cuts on the plants (not ragged, not holes).  Also look for rabbit pellets, a telltale sign.  One way to keep them away from the plants is to fence off the tulip bed.  Another option is to use repellents, which have smells that the bunnies just don’t like.  Don’t purchase any hot-pepper (capsaicin)- based products, which could harm the little guys.   Dog or human hair, or blood meal placed around the tulip bed, can also deter the rabbits.

Deer also like to eat tulips, including stems, leaves and petals – the leaves would be ragged. Deer don’t like bright lights or loud noises, so if you see them, make a racket.

See Growing Tulips: A Toronto Master Gardeners Guide.  The Guide mentions that certain critters, like squirrels, voles and mice, enjoy eating tulip bulbs, and that planting tulips with other plants whose scent they don’t enjoy, like daffodils, allium and fritillaria.  The same strategy can be applied to critters like rabbits that eat tulip leaves – repel them by interspersing other lovely – but stinky (at least, to them) – plants in your tulip bed.

You’ve got some detective work ahead of you.  Be on the lookout for large and small culprits and pay attention to the type of “munch mark” left on the remaining leaves, to help identify the hungry fellows.   Fencing the tulip bed is an unwieldy and work-intensive prospect, and should not be necessary.   However, depending on the identity of the culprit, you may want to install motion lighting in the area of the tulip bed to scare them off, to scatter hair/blood meal around the beds, to simply to hunt and pick off slugs (etc) from the undersides of leaves or get rid of insects using a strong spray from the garden hose.   And one delightful option is to interplant daffodils, allium and fritillaria – and possibly other plants, depending on which critter has been raiding the tulip bed. You can check on-line to identify deterrents for various pests.

Finally, it’s important to keep the tulip beds clean and free of places where these critters can hide.  Keep the leaves dry (water using soaker hoses or just be careful not to get water on the leaves).

Some good news, too – often tulips will return year after year, despite having been munched on by hungry little beasties.

All the best in protecting your tulips!