Whilst life seems to be on hold, static, plant life moves on as usual, ignoring social distancing, responding to the seasons and imparting a sense of relief with its rhythm in a chaotic world. In the interim between the early spring daffodils and the flowering of herbaceous planting, gardens can look devoid of much colour – blossom has yet to appear on the fruit trees, Anenome blanda is in flower, and perhaps the Euphorbias too, but it is all very contained, very restrained. This is the time for tulips!
As the 16th century advanced, plant hunters explored, the science of botany developed, and Renaissance artists rendered plants more naturally and in greater botanic detail. Printing created a wider audience and flowers, began to be valued for their ornamental, as well as their culinary or medicinal use. Introduced to England at this time, Tulips became, almost literally, worth their weight in gold in the seventeenth century, when Tulipmania took over in Holland and England. Originating from the Levant, from Persia and from Turkey, where, as John Parkinson, the seventeenth century ‘King’s First Botanist’ commented, ‘it is said they grow naturally wild in the fields’, (a), they are said to be named after their turban like shape ‘tulipband‘. He titles his chapter on them ‘Tulipa, The Turks Cap’, and delights ‘in this one plant no end of diversity to be expected’ (b). He even tried eating the roots, preserved in sugar (c), and found them ‘almost as pleasant as the Eringus roots’. Today, this would be advised against – better to look at and enjoy!
Pages from John Parkinson’s Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, 1629, to either side of a snippet from the front cover, where the tulip is seen to be as prized as a pineapple
Leafing through a few garden books, I came across a magical description in Charles Skinner’s book, Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruit and Plants: a Devon folk tale which tells of pixies, who, lacking a cradle for their children, used the tulips to rock them to sleep at night, ‘cradled by the winds’,(d). A woman, discovering the tiny babies asleep by the light of her lantern, was so enchanted she planted more and more, enough for all the fairy children! And the fairies in their gratitude, granted the flowers bright colours and scent. The story goes that when the woman died, a grasping ‘worldling’ destroyed the garden, and her grave, adorned with beautiful tulips, was trodden down, so the tulips lost their scent and size but were allowed to retain their colours for future generations.
Tulips, almost a status symbol, a demonstration of the wealth of their owners, were the seventeenth century bling equivalent ostentatiously displayed in special vases, made of Delftware, such as the one below, or planted carefully to display their merits, five single tulips to a square, the rarest specimens kept for the central pots. Plantsmen such as Sir Thomas Hanmer, planted regimental ranks of tulips, which he prized as the ‘Queene of Bulbous plants’, (e), in his walled Great Garden at Bettisfield.
The tulip was to prove a rich source of imagery for interiors in the 16th and 17th century appearing on tiles, and household objects, and taken up again in the Arts and Crafts period by William Morris amongst others, who used them as a motif for his wallpaper and furnishings, and by Tiffany in the early 20th century in their glass lamps.
In Holland the fields full of tulips are a wonderful sight, and definitely worth a visit, as is Keukenhof, where rivers of bulbs and blocks of colour suggest mass planting ideas, on a scale not usually available. For clients I pick a peak time and chose two or three varieties that will flower together in one space at that time, followed by others in different space, experimenting with both complimentary and contrasting colours. I particularly like the combination of purple, orange and lime green for its zing. I have used Peter Nyssen https://www.peternyssen.com/ for years, ordering in quantity, for planting usually in November. De Jager https://www.dejager.co.uk/, Bloms Bulbs https://www.blomsbulbs.com/ and Avon Bulbs https://www.avonbulbs.co.uk/ are other specialist suppliers. I try to plant rhythmically through a border, knowing that, in time, herbaceous planting will cover the unsightly leaves as the flowers fade. Bulbs should be planted about 15cm deep, and at least 13cm apart.
As for varieties, the choice is immense from the single flowered Flaming Purissima whose raspberry pink flushed white petals open wide out, to reveal their yellow centre, to double tulips such as La Belle Epoque, a lovely washed apricot, to Green Star, an extraordinary green and white lily flowered tulip, whose pointed petals twist in wonderful ways, to the full paeony-style double flower of Aveyron, and the exotic fringed parrot tulip, Rococco, to name a few illustrated below. Whichever you chose, be generous in your quantities – impossible to add more another year without digging up the ones you planted in the first place! I find mine do last for years – I don’t bother to lift them, but I do make sure I plant them deep. Think about photographing your garden now to record where you might put them next year, and when you are lazing in the garden, leaf through the catalogues and plan ahead!
REFERENCES: a few books and sites to follow up if you like:
Everett, Diana, The Genus Tulipa, Tulips of the World, (London: Kew Publishing, 2013)
Parkinson, John, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, 1629, (a) p. 65, (b) p. 45, (c) p. 67
Pavord, Anna, The Tulip, (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 1999)
Jacques, David, and Arend Jan van der Horst, The Gardens of William and Mary (Christopher Helm, 1988)
Skinner, Charles, Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Plants, (Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott, 1925), (d) p. 277
Hobhouse, Penelope, Plants in Garden History, (London: Pavilion Books, 1994) (e) p. 130 quoting Sir Thomas Hanmer in The Garden Book
Hanmer, Sir Thomas, The Garden Book of Sir Thomas Hanmer, Bart. With an Introduction by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, (London: Gerald Howe, 1933)