Tulips. They are Dutch in origin, aren’t they? Well no. The original tulips are no more Dutch than I am, but the modern hybrid tulips largely originate from the flat home of dairy, dykes, windmills and clogs. And in a love affair spanning 450 years, the Dutch have made this plant family their own.
We don’t grow many tulips in our own garden. The showiest by far is a tulip from Crete – T. saxatilis. Most people are surprised to find that there is a tulip from that Greek island because, after all, tulips come from Holland, do they not? In fact the species in the wild – and there appear to be somewhere between 70 and 100 different species recorded – do not originate from anywhere in Northern Europe. Instead, stretching from Southern Europe, through Northern Africa, the Middle East and spreading overland from Turkey to north western China, tulips have a wide territory. Many of them favour mountainous areas with hot, dry summers and cold winters and therein lies the hint to the problems people can have with getting the modern hybrids to flower past the first season in their garden. Most need a much greater winter chill than we can give them here.
We have three different tulips in the garden. The Cretan species is wonderfully easy-care and increases gently and reliably. I love the unlikely contrast between the lilac pink and bright gold. Then we have a pure yellow one which is inclined to nod its head. Mark thinks it may be a hybrid, not a species, though I am unsure of how he reached this conclusion. It never increases but it does at least return each year. And we have a small flowered, small growing species of unknown origin. Charmingly understated, might be the descriptor.
I am not the world’s greatest fan of modern tulip hybrids but concede I am in a minority. I have toyed with the idea of bulk buying bulbs of one or maybe two selected cultivars to drift through areas of the garden. A swathe of pure white tulips or maybe clusters of a deep wine colour might add to the early spring herbaceous plantings even though they may be a little clichéd. But I prefer to spend money on bulbs which have a life-span beyond just one season. I can’t bring myself to treat tulip bulbs as a disposable commodity. It seems a shocking waste of money, resources and effort.
I was a bit surprised to find that even in the UK, tulips are often treated as annuals because their repeat performance is patchy at best, despite the fact that their winters are much colder than ours. Tulip bulbs are much cheaper to buy there which may be a factor.
It is not that these hybrids all die after flowering for the one season. They just decline and flowering diminishes considerably in subsequent years unless you go to the trouble of lifting them, separating the offsets, chilling them and replanting in fresh ground. That is a lot of effort. Holland apparently produces fresh tulip bulbs by the billions each year, so I guess there is an insatiable demand from people who do keep replenishing supplies.
The early variegations and novelty breakthroughs were almost certainly caused by virus which, while giving variety, also weakens the plants over time. Nowadays, the variegations are the result of genetic breeding and selection, and considerable effort has been made to get rid of the debilitating viruses. Most of the modern hybrids descended originally from T. suaveolens, which we do not have in our garden here.
The history of tulips is fascinating but not without debate. The earliest cultivation of tulips was apparently recorded 1000 years ago in Persia. How and when they arrived in Northern Europe is disputed, but they appear to have been taken there in the mid 1500s. By 1637, what is now called “tulip mania” had hit Holland. Single bulbs could command fabulous prices – reportedly as high as 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. But it was not just the wealthy plant collector who coveted these flowering plants. They had become an investment commodity, priced way beyond their actual value. This extraordinary situation has received a lot of attention because it was the first recorded instance of rampant, economic speculation on a product but there is ongoing debate about the extent and the detail. Economic data from 1637 is always going to be a little sparse and sometimes unreliable. Whatever, it makes a good story and “tulip mania” has entered the lexicon as a term for a freakish economic bubble, such as the sub-prime mortgage bubble in most recent times.
Going back to garden plants, in their simplest form tulips are generally cup-shaped and can face upwards or downwards. Essentially they all have strappy foliage and while it looks as if they have 6 petals, botanically they have 3 petals and 3 sepals. Ten times an average income seems an awful lot to pay for one of those.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.