Tulips: A world of color in a single bulb

Slip on your wooden shoes and start tilting at windmills, because April is the month for tulips and I was recently honored to be in the land of Windmills, wooden shoes and tulips.

  • Friday, April 18, 2008 6:00pm
  • News

Slip on your wooden shoes and start tilting at windmills, because April is the month for tulips and I was recently honored to be in the land of Windmills, wooden shoes and tulips. Acres and acres of tulips. Red tulips, yellow tulips, bi-colored tulips and striped tulips. Holland is hosting an international bulb symposium and journalists from all over the world are meeting to learn the latest dirt about tulips – and iris, daffodils, hyacinths and fields of other bulbs.

The best part about traveling in Europe and enjoying gardens is that horticulturists all speak the same language when it comes to plants. Latin plant names are the same in Spanish, Dutch, English, German and Italian. (They are the same in Chinese, Greek and Japanese as well, but I haven’t met any horticulturists from those countries just yet.)

The Netherlands is the original center of the bulb-growing universe. Not that tulips, daffodils and the other spring beauties are native to this part of the world. Most bulbs were discovered in Turkey and part of the Middle East and then brought back to Europe during the age of exploration by new plant hunters. The climate, soil and raised growing beds of the Netherlands dike system made for perfect tulip growing conditions and by the 1600s tulip-growing and tulip-selling had turned into Tulipmania. Fortunes were made and spectacular bankruptcies were suffered all in the game of tulip-bulb speculation.

Here’s a true story. In 1637 a single tulip bulb (a lovely red and white mix called ’Admiral Lieffkens‘) was sold for 4,400 guilders. Enough to buy an estate. A very large fortune – for a single bulb. The story of the tulip is a story of greed, desire, passion and anguish.

1. A tulip bulb contains an already-formed flower inside its papery brown skin when you plant it in the fall. You don’t need to feed it or, in our climate, to water it during the winter.

2. Deer and slugs love tulips as much as we do. If you wake up one morning and see stems but no flowers, suspect there are some happy deer in the neighborhood. If the flower petals are full of holes, look for slugs.

3. The biggest reason for tulip distress and death is poor drainage. Tulips hate wet feet. Plant them in rock gardens, raised beds, container gardens and on hillsides. Don’t plant them in low, wet spots.

4. When your tulips start to fade you can cut off the flower but leave the foliage alone if you want your tulips to bloom next year. The fading greens are making next year’s flower. After they bloom is a good time fertilize your tulips.

5. Enjoy tulips as cut flowers indoors and celebrate that this is the only cut flower that will continue to grow taller after it is cut. The stems of cut tulips also will sway slowly as they bend toward the lights. Give your cut tulips enough room in a vase to spread out and dance. Any flowers that keeps on moving and growing even after it’s been cut from the roots deserves to be honored.

Tulip bulbs don’t cost a life’s fortune anymore but they’re still priceless icons of this glorious spring season.

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