I love tulips. In the Victorian language of flowers, tulips were used as a declaration of love (especially the red ones) but for myself they have a unique memory attached.
When my wife and I got married, six years ago this weekend, I grew over 300 tulips to provide flowers for the tables. In the Autumn we chose a selection of three varieties; ‘Maureen’ – a large flowered white variety, ‘Queen of Night’ – a deep purple flower, and ‘Maytime’ – a purple lily-flowered type. We were anxious that should our timing, or the changeable spring weather, be slightly amiss, we may have nothing to show for our effort, so we added irises, anemones, alliums and bluebells to our selection to ensure we would have something to cut. When the bulbs arrived in October we rushed to the plot to plant them, and one third of my allotment was turned over to producing our wedding flowers.
We were blessed with good luck and in the run up to the big day we had a long stint of unbroken good weather so they were all flowering at exactly the right time. We were due to marry on the Sunday, so on the Friday, after finishing work, I headed down to the allotment to cut them, ready for the big day. It was inspired timing as no sooner had I finished but the heavens opened and it didn’t stop raining until after we had tied the knot. The Saturday was spent with my family putting the arrangements together and on the morning of the ceremony I delivered my flowers to the venue. I always saw the project as a bit of an analogy for the day itself, the long buildup and preparation before that one moment was invisible to everyone else, but held a unique significance to us and made our memories of the day much stronger, and even more personal to us.
I have never had the pleasure of visiting Holland during tulip time, although it is near the top of my horticultural ‘wish list’. In Spring the landscape is turned into a rainbow of colours as the tulip fields come into bloom. Perhaps a visit should form part of our anniversary celebrations in the coming years. Unfortunately, the display is short-lived, as no sooner do they start flowering than they are mown off to conserve the bulbs energy so they will ‘bulk up’, ready for sale. One of the best places to see tulips must be in the Keukenhof garden, where the Dutch bulb industry shows off just how impressively the tulip can be used in gardens, and offers the breeders a chance to showcase their newest varieties.
The natural variability of these flower has for centuries encouraged plant breeders to tinker with them, continually creating ever more forms and colours. Most species originate from Central Asia and they were probably first cultivated and improved in Persia around the 10th century. They soon became an intrinsic part of the culture, and the long dagger-shaped petals of tulipa cluisiana regularly appear in pottery and artwork from the region.
Tulips were first introduced to Europe from the Middle East in the middle of the 16th century, and by the the early 17th Century they had became a symbol of wealth among Dutch traders. This triggered a craze for collecting and a price bubble meant bulbs of some of the most exotic flamed and feathered varieties were changing hands at extraordinary prices, (around 10 times the wage of a skilled craftsman) and many people were consequently ruined when the market eventually crashed.
It wasn’t until 1928, when Dorothy Cayley, a plant scientist working at the John Innes centre in Norfolk was able to prove that the colour break which was so desirable to the Dutch, was caused by a virus transferred from plant to plant by aphids. To this day the broken tulips are not shown at RHS shows as they are ‘diseased plants’, although they remain a key element at the shows held by the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society. This is one of the oldest florists societies in England and they still show examples of the flamed and feathered types, presented in the necks of (empty) beer bottles at their annual shows.
Unfortunately for many of us our tulip displays can be short lived, and seem to need replenishing annually. I have often found that some of the easiest types of tulip to naturalise, and give reliable repeat performances, are those known as the species types. One of my favourites is tulipa sylvestris, which propagates itself easily under ground by tiny rhizomes, and will pop up unexpectedly some distance from where it was originally planted. There are many other fabulous species tulips such as tulipa sprengeri, tulipa tarda, tulipa turkestanica or tulip saxatilis and while they tend to be slightly less conspicuous than their ‘louder’ relatives, they are no less beautiful and, in my experience, considerably more persistent.
These beautiful flowers, despite having no intrinsic value as food or fibre plants, have managed to travel across Europe from the Middle East and have intertwined themselves deeply into our culture so it is unsurprising they have managed to become some of our most loved flowers and a quintessential part of our gardens in the Spring.