Tag Archives: tulips

Tulips from Floriade (as opposed to Amsterdam)

I have just returned from ten days across the Tasman. A mother’s tour of three state capitals, I describe it. Mark and I have three children all of whom are now living in different Australian cities. So to visit them involves a tour from Sydney to Canberra to Melbourne.

While in Canberra, Elder Daughter took me to the final day of Floriade. This is a major community and tourist event for the area with an emphasis on the tulip, backed up by annuals and the Dutch iris in support roles. It is a living flower show and is open for a whole month. The ever-handy internet tells me it involves the planting of more than a million bulbs and annuals across 8000 square metres. It is free entry which is pretty remarkable. There are a whole lot of ancillary activities – performances, cultural celebrations, traders, workshops and the like but beyond buying an icecream each, we took little notice of these.

I admit I am not the world’s greatest fan of the tulip, let alone massed displays of them. They are just a little … stiff, maybe overbred for my personal taste. But I am quite happy to acknowledge that I am a minority in this opinion and that others have great fondness for the genus. Or at least for the OTT displays often created using massed bulbs of the genus. And it would take a churlish disposition to find fault with this very pretty pink and white display.

It didn’t take me long to work out that Floriade has nothing to do with gardening. It is high level, very competent horticulture. Keeping a display going for a full month requires good skills, especially given a climate which can move from a very cold winter with late frosts to temperatures that we would regard as high summer at home, all in the space of those thirty days. There are many reasons to visit, but gleaning inspiration for the home garden is not one.

However, it is a great place to see colour theory in action – how hues of similar tones create a visual carpet of colour while certain combinations will make the colour pop. I was particularly taken by the blue bed and realised how much I respond to those shades.

I liked the occasional incident of a colour rogue – a plant that is quite clearly the wrong colour. I liked even more that these rogues had not been rooted out for ‘spoiling’ the display. My late mother used to make large rugs by hand. She was not a perfectionist but would often say that any errors were following tradition – that perfection was seen as a challenge to either the gods or God, and that the traditional rug-makers always put at least one deliberate mistake into their work. I have no idea now whether this is true let alone which religion she was referencing – possibly Islam, given the geographic location of rug-makers? The rogue pink ranunculus made me smile and think of her.

I took this photo to try and convey the flat, anticlimactic nature of black (or very dark) flowers. Mark has always been offhand about black or indeed green flowers which he sees as novelty blooms sold on the strength of individual flowers when viewed close up, not on visual impact in the garden. And he is right. All these very, very dark flowers just looked lifeless and dull en masse. They are black pansies and dark to black tulips.

Elder Daughter is clearly our offspring. She was considering the disappointing waste of wrapping up the show when the beds are all stripped out and the bulbs and plants presumably become compost. She felt that if they could delay the exercise of reinstating this inner city parkland for a further six weeks or so, then they could sell tickets for $10 each and allow locals to come and dig up the bulbs to take home. She felt she would be photographing the bulbs she really liked so she could locate them when they were starting to go dormant. At least the flowers are all picked at the end of the show, to be delivered to hospitals and care homes around the area, I was told.

Again, I posted an album of additional Floriade photos to Facebook. For anyone who, like a Dutch friend of mine, still thinks tulips originated in the Netherlands, I wrote this piece earlier. Short version: they didn’t.

For the devotees of white

Tulips, but not from Amsterdam

Tulips from Crete - T. saxatilis

Tulips from Crete – T. saxatilis

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.

Some species - we just don't know which one

Some species – we just don’t know which one

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.

Indubitably tulip, but we have no name on it and it never increases.

Indubitably tulip, but we have no name on it and it never increases.

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.

I went looking for a photo of tulip fields in Holland and found instead this one of tulip fields in Japan, pretending they are in Holland!

I went looking for a photo of tulip fields in Holland and found instead this one of tulip fields in Japan, pretending they are in Holland!

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.