Tulips. Squirrels dig up the bulbs before they have a chance to bloom. If a bulb does manage to produce a bud, chances are good that when we go out to check on that potential flower the deer have eaten the bud in the meantime and left us a stem. If, by some miracle, we actually get to see a tall, colorful, fragrant tulip bloom by the next year, it is a flower half the expected size on a flimsy stem.
And yet, every year I buy bulbs because I fall in love with their pictures and hope that maybe I will get to see those beautiful flowers in my own yard. Why? Because they are tulips. I have hundreds of deer-proof bulbs: daffodils, crocus, different types of hyacinths, snowdrops, and others. I truly look forward to seeing all of them bloom but the small group of tulip leaves in a tight corner behind the boxwoods is what I am watching most closely. Maybe I will get blooms which look like the picture on the package when I selected these eight white lumps in thin brown papery wrappings last fall. Just maybe.
I might really like tulips and wish that I had fields of them but no one has ever loved, no, coveted, tulips like the Dutch did between 1634 and 1637. Let’s look into the flower’s fascinating history. Originally cultivated in the Ottoman Empire, the tulip was introduced to Europe when the Austrian ambassador to the court of Suleyman the Magnificent sent a small shipment of bulbs back to the Hapsburg court in 1554.
The Turks had taken tulips from the wild and bred them to be something very different. In the wild they were short with open, starlike flowers; the Turks bred them to be long and slim, with petals that were almost dagger-like. They had patience and enthusiasm and enjoyed the tulip’s propensity to mature differently than the original flower the seed derived from. In fact, it was the constant changing nature of tulips that caused them to be thought of as the flower that is the most blessed by Nature because she played with it more than any other bloom.
In the Ottoman Empire at the time, tulips flourished as natural selection came into play: bees were attracted to the biggest and brightest flowers, and the Turks were selecting and reproducing the biggest and brightest blooms. Man and nature worked together at producing an abundance of amazing flowers.
During the “Tulip Era” from 1718 to 1730, the Ottoman Empire’s Sultan Ahmed III’s love of tulips was so great that he held extravagant celebrations with the gardens filled with candles, music, lights and dancing girls every night the tulips were in bloom. These celebrations were so over-the-top that it was one of the factors leading to his being overthrown in 1730.
Let’s go back to Europe. As it traveled from one royal court to another, the tulip was already seen as something special to be valued. As with all things royal, tulips were something rare and sought after by the wealthy. In 1593, a famous bulb specialist, horticulturalist Carolus Clusius, took some Viennese bulbs with him to Holland. Because he was so boastful and covetous of his tulip bulbs and because he refused to part with them at any price, some angry but enterprising tulip enthusiasts banded together and stole the bulbs from him. Clusius was so broken from this that he gave up cultivating bulbs completely. However, the thieves embarked on tulip production at full throttle. Because the seeds from one tulip can produce many different varieties of flowers, Holland was soon filled with hundreds of different varieties.
Sometimes one tulip in a garden of perhaps a hundred would bloom differently than the rest. It would unfurl with streaks of a contrasting color on the main body, often called flames, or feathers. That one unusual bulb was the prize bulb that could be sold for large amounts of money; a single bulb could even be used as currency to buy things of value like a house. Legends abound, including one about a miller that exchanged his whole mill for one bulb and a bridegroom that accepted one tulip as sufficient dowry. The Dutch tried some crazy things to increase the frequency of these special blooms, including sprinkling dry pigment powder over beds of white tulip bulbs. Unknown to them, the variations actually came from a virus that was spread from tulip to tulip by aphids. Because the prized, unusual bulbs were caused by a virus, the flowers were beautiful, but sick, and produced less-than-healthy bulbs.
Trading in tulip bulbs became so intense that people left thriving occupations to become bulb traders. Where the actual bulbs were once the currency, promissory notes for future bulbs were starting to be traded. Then on February 2, 1637, the auction market opened and there was no one willing to speculate with enormous amounts of money on the pieces of paper that represented a possible future bulb with a special flower. And just like a stock market crashing from over inflated values, the Dutch tulip market tanked. The only thing that survived was the Dutch knowledge and love for growing tulips. Holland is still a major producer of tulip bulbs.
A tulip growers year starts in October when the bulbs are planted, and then a winter cover is put on in November. In the spring the flowers are cut off so the bulbs can grow larger. In July, the bulbs are dug up and then graded by size. In August and September they are checked, packed, crated for shipping and then checked again by the USDA before being loaded for shipping from Rotterdam. From September to December they are re-inspected before being sent to distributors and sales rooms.
Two things are important to note here in this calendar. First, if you see bulbs for sale before September they are probably inferior in size or leftover from last year; the big colorful bags that are full of peat moss and subgrade bulbs are not worth buying. Wait until you can select the bulbs yourself, or order from a reputable catalog. Second, be grateful for all of the inspections. These ensure that we are getting healthy bulbs and not bringing unwanted diseases into our gardens.
I wish I could tell you how to have a fabulous tulip display, but I can’t. There are several products and home remedies that promise success, like wire cages for the bulbs and various powders to toss them in before planting. One year, I put a daffodil bulb in each hole on top of the tulip bulb to throw the marauders off the scent. It actually did keep them from digging them up but did not keep them from eating the flowers. Try all of the things you use to save your roses, lilies, phlox and hostas: spray, sprinkle, and wire.
The big spring display at my house is from all different kinds of daffodils, mixed with lots of other bulbs that deer do not like. But I’m still really hoping that the clump of tulip leaves in the sheltered corner actually turns out to be the glorious salmon-pink tulips from the bulbs I planted last fall.
For a fascinating discussion of tulips, apples, potatoes, and marijuana, read Botany of Desire, A Plant’s Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan.