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Tulip Time


A silky, colorful tulip says spring in an unmistakable manner. It is a hard flower to beat, although it is a favorite one for the critters to eat. Lately I have stopped planting such expensive deer and squirrel fodder, but I love tulips in their many forms. And I still can enjoy them, thanks to abundant shopping and viewing opportunities.

The whole tulip rainbow is available in cut flowers. Single tulips have six big petals but double ones have multiple layers of petals. Fresh from a garden, tulips last almost a week in the vase. From a florist or supermarket flower stall, they last almost as well if they are fresh. Select flowers that are still in bud but showing their color. The leaves should be a fresh, bright green, not yellowed. That yellow is not going to improve with time. When you bring the tulips home, cut off the bottom half inch of the stems, and set them into deep cool water to condition for a few hours or overnight before you arrange them.

Arrange tulips by themselves or with other flowers; they will open in the vase. They seem to grow, drinking, getting larger, and flaring out their pretty petals into open stars. Every other day at least, change the water. Parrot tulips with their feathery texture sometimes change their streaky color as they mature. Even when tulips are cut flowers, they turn toward the light and slowly wiggle around as the day goes on. Combined with smaller flowers, they are focal points, especially those big parrot types.

We have the kind of climate that tulips like here in the Delaware Valley. If you can keep the wild critters away, they are easy to grow. Plant the bulbs in November, pointy side up, about six inches deep, following package directions. They like well-drained, rich, but sandy soil. If you have the usual sticky clay, lighten it with perlite and compost or other organic material. Include slow-release fertilizer in the planting hole. Frugality note—tulips go on sale around Thanksgiving, at the end of the planting season, and they will grow perfectly well if you want to buy and plant them then. Here in my little wildlife habitat of a garden, there are old tulips that manage to return. A few lily-flowered ones and a few Darwin tulips from a dozen years ago have worked their way under tree roots and into places the squirrels can’t dig up. Their brethren are gone and it’s shadier now, but it is nice to see these pretty survivors. More reliable if less showy are some delicate species tulips. They look completely natural as they pour out of linear slots—crevices among rocks—forming a line of small red and yellow stars on a sunny day. The rocks keep the tiny bulbs from becoming some chipmunk’s tasty snack.

Tulips are mountain flowers which are perfectly suited to rough and rocky terrain. In their native locations in central Asia the wild forms cope with hungry goats and dry summers. A seed wedges in a crack between the rocks. As the plant grows, its bulb sustains it through the less hospitable times of year. It takes several years before it is large enough to make a flower. Foliage and blooms appear in early spring. The tulip flower is actually formed the year before, and pops up ready to expand and grow when conditions are right.

The same attributes make tulips excellent city flowers. Plant them and they come forth reliably. I recall Lady Bird Johnson launching her Washington, DC beautification program with thousands and thousands of gorgeous flowers in traffic islands and streetside plantings. Her work inspired other cities to do the same.

If you want tulips in your garden now but you didn’t plant them in the fall, the garden centers and farmer’s markets are ready for you. Just buy them growing in pots. If it is the same time of year as tulips bloom outside, plant them as if they are pots of pansies. If they have been grown in greenhouses and are blooming ahead of schedule for the outdoors, enjoy them indoors for now. It’s too cold out. In the house it’s a little too warm for them, so keep them cool at night and let them get somewhat warmer during the day so they will hold their colors longer. After they bloom, set them in a protected but sunny place to “ripen” the foliage and then plant them in your garden. If they don’t get eaten they will rebloom or at least regrow next spring.

As if you can’t see enough tulips around here, including our street and shopping center plantings and massive displays at Longwood Gardens, you can always travel to Holland, Michigan for the annual Tulip Time Festival (www.tuliptime.com). This year it runs from May 1 through May 8. It should attract several hundred thousand visitors for its spring explosion of beauty and numerous special events including “Tulipalooza” concerts, a Tulip Time Salute, a Dutch Heritage show, the Dutch Marketplaatz, a craft show, and, of course, countless tulips of many kinds in all their glory.