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January 25, 2007


Tulips are my favourite flowers!  I suppose that comes as no surprise to anyone who knows of my Dutch background.  Because they bloom so early in the spring after the long winter, they are filled with the hope and promise of the wonderful things to come. That is another reason why I love them!

The name “tulip” (Latin name tulipa) is derived from the Turkish word for turban. The shape of the blossom is thought to be similar to the shape of the turban which is why they were so named. The Turks cultivated this flower through Persia and Asia from as early as 1000 AD.  The tulip was first smuggled out of Turkey and introduced to Holland in the mid-1500’s.  The first person to plant tulips in the Netherlands was Carolus Clusius in 1593.  The Dutch immediately took tulips to heart.  Fantastic sums were paid for a single bulb, until the market finally crashed, sweeping great fortunes in its wake. It was not unusual for a father to offer some tulip bulbs as a dowry for his daughter so highly prized were they.

In his definitive book “Tulipa”, photographer Christopher Baker, with the assistance of third generation tulip grower, Willem Lemmers, researched the hundreds of varieties of tulips and their origins. Mr. Lemmers tells many interesting stories clearly emphasing the importance of tulips to Holland in many different ways. He describes the “Hunger Winter” just after World War II when many Dutch people in Northern Holland were literally starving and would walk many kilometers to where the tulip fields were located to eat the bulbs to keep from starving. He writes, “A boiled tulip bulb is actually sweet-tasting, and crocus bulbs can be ground into flour and used for baking.” (P. 24) Tulips today are grown commercially in huge fields near the town of Lisse where the world-renowned Keukenhof Gardens are located in Northern Holland.  It is really worth a trip to Holland to see the fantastic colourful fields of tulips in their prime from mid – April to mid – May.  More than 2 billion tulip bulbs are grown annually in The Netherlands for export to all parts of the world. Tulips are planted in the fall in well-drained soil for spring blooming.  For best effect they should be planted in groups of uneven numbers.  In our climate they must be covered with three inches of mulch or leaves so that they do not freeze in our usually harsh winters. The bulbs contain their first season’s food supply.  However fertilizer should be added at planting to foster future growth. I have found that tulip bulbs will produce flowers for at least four years and after that the plants become smaller and smaller and if they are not dug up they may only produce leaves. I usually replace them with new bulbs after four years. It is important to cut off the flower heads when the petals begin to droop. The foliage must be allowed to whither and die naturally as photosynthesis in the leaves provides the nutrients in the bulbs for the following year. This is also done in the tulip fields in Holland producing gorgeous sights of mounds of glorious-coloured petals all around the fields. This is considered refuse and either given to farmers as food for cows or simply left to decay.  The commercial growers are most interested in producing more and better bulbs. And so when the tulips are in their prime, their heads are cut off. This can be done manually as well as by machines.

There are 3000 varieties of tulips now and this has added to their attraction. The different varieties of the tulips also provide for long colourful displays in the garden as they bloom at different times.  Many hybrids hardly resemble the tulips we are used to seeing. The bearded and fringed tulips are spectacular and the range of colours is vibrant oranges, yellows, reds, combinations of red and white even of green and white and pink!  A very dark-coloured variety called “Queen of the Night” seems to be black but is actually a very dark hue of purple. Parrot tulips are another blazing example of fringed tulips – some of which even sport double fringes!  A new experimental heavily – fringed tulip, 50 centimetres tall, is called “Cummings”.  It is purple with a white rim on the edges of the petals.  The fringe is so extreme that it resembles sharks’ teeth. Hybridizers must ask whether the market wants such a tulip.  Another new introduction is a “Cabbagelike Tulip called Ice Cream”. (plate 133 in “Tulipa”). The bottom petals are pink and the thick mass of white petals protruding from the base resembles the leaves of a cabbage – hence its name – quite amazing! It grows 40 centimetres in height. The jury is still out on this one as well as to its viability in the marketplace. There are many choices that have the appearance of lilies in a diversity of colours.  Double tulips have the appearance of peonies and come in a medley of lovely tints, their  large heads bursting with petals – very beautiful indeed!  Because of the extensive choice in tulips today, they are fantastically popular as a must-have spring flower in that there are hues and styles for everyone’s taste.

 I love all tulips but my all time favourite has always been “White Dream” which is an ivory white flower which grows to a height of 50 centimetres. Its’ splendid elegance has always appealed to me and enticed me both with the classic lines of the white petals and the stature of the stem and long leaves.  The majesty of these white tulips in my garden is always a source of inspiration and pleasure to me!

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