Anyone who reads this blog regularly will have discovered that I have something of an aversion to striped flowers. Each to their own, of course, but they are just not for me. So, when we first moved to Victoria last year and I discovered the only tulips in my new back garden had red and yellow stripes, I immediately dug them out. I must have missed some small bulbs though because this year they were back.
Even worse, another one, even more garishly red and yellow, suddenly popped up outside the front door, right in the middle of my ‘tasteful’ combination of blue and white brunnera with the lovely pale muscari ‘Baby’s Breath’. Is someone indulging in a bit of guerrilla gardening, I wondered, raising a quizzical eyebrow in the direction of my fellow flower enthusiast and sometime garden helper, the boy next door. I don’t plant tulips out front, because they are the definitive deer candy. But do you think the deer would touch this ghastly flower? Not a chance. Then just as I’d pulled that one out, the final provocation: up popped another – different form, same colours – in a pot of lily flowered ‘Dutch Dancer’.
I’m beginning to feel hunted. Remember Thumbelina? In the story by Hans Christian Andersen, a woman wants a tiny child, so she goes to a witch who gives her a seed. The seed is planted and up pops a red and yellow striped tulip. The woman kisses the tulip, and its petals open to show a tiny little girl, no bigger than a thumb, sitting inside. After being abducted and abused first by a horrid and ugly Toad and then by a Cockchafer, Thumbelina is saved from marriage to a Mole by a swallow who flies her away to warmer lands where she meets a handsome fairy prince who is king of the flowers and becomes his queen.
I am not kissing that tulip.
Rogue bulbs aside, this has been a remarkably successful year for me in terms of tulips and it is so much easier to grow them here than it was in Menorca. You have to be really keen to grow tulips in a hot climate as they need a good few months of chilling. Looking back, I must say my husband, who runs the kitchen in our house, was remarkably tolerant when September came around and all the vegetable drawers in the fridge got filled with tulip bulbs.
I was warned about two things with regard to growing tulips in Victoria. First, as already noted, they are deer candy and can be grown only in fenced areas, like our back garden, that deer cannot access. (Although, from my experience, it would seem deer turn up their noses at red and yellow stripes even if they are in chomping distance.) Second, I was told squirrels are almost equally keen and will dig up every tulip bulb you plant. There are all sorts of remedies suggested for this, including sprinkling around hot pepper, and covering areas with wire, but most people reported little success with such tactics. Then someone recommended whole cloves – whole, not ground, which would wash away – and for me, this did the trick. The three resident squirrels carefully avoided all the clove scented areas and I didn’t lose one bulb.
Some favourite tulips
I’ve experimented with quite a wide variety of tulips this year, trying to find the ones I like best for the garden and best for cutting, so here are some of the ones that impressed me most.
Parrots – any parrots
My absolute favourite tulips have always been the parrots, which may seem a bit rich coming from someone who makes such a fuss about red and yellow stripes. Strangely, many of my favourite tulips this year have been quite bright and colourful. After searching high and low for the highly covetable ‘La Belle Epoque’, I was left cold by its, in the words of Arthur Parkinson, ‘stained mattress shades’, otherwise described in the catalogues as ‘soft vintage shades of butterscotch, salmon and cream’.
The parrots are so flamboyant, so extravagant, just a bit bonkers really, and I think what saves them is their very excess. They look nothing like a prim bedding tulip of the Parks and Garden persuasion, something usually found planted in a sea of forget-me-nots. I actually don’t think the parrots make very good garden plants, but for me they are the very best for cutting. This year I grew ‘Apricot Parrot’ (possibly the best parrot), ‘Amazing Parrot’ and ‘Black Parrot’: all winners. Next year I’ll grow every parrot I can get my hands on.
Doubles and peony-flowered tulips
The first and last to bloom in my garden have become new favourites. The first, ‘Exotic Emperor’, is an early double in the Fosteriana group, creamy yellow with green stripes on the outer petals. I highly recommend these if, like me, you haven’t tried them before. They are so lush and full; they die back beautifully, fading to a soft ivory, and they lasted a good ten days in the vase. I was really pleased to hear they are strongly perennial and naturalise easily.
The last to come into bloom was another new one for me, the peony-flowered ‘Renown Unique’. It is a watermelon colour with far better form than many of the better known doubles, such as ‘Angelique’ (which I love for all – or perhaps because of – its scruffiness). It’s very expensive here, though, perhaps because it has been promoted by some celebrity farmer florists.
I’ve always been a big fan of lily-flowered tulips too. The complete opposite to the parrots, these are elegant and refined. They are great in the garden and in the vase. I love ‘Ballerina’, a gorgeous orange, and tried it this year with the Triumph tulip ‘Prinses Irene’ . They looked well together in plain black pots and both are lightly scented which is a real plus for a tulip.
‘Tres Chic’ and ‘White Triumphator’ are super whites, if you can find them, with the added bonus of being able to flower in quite a bit of shade. I still haven’t decided about the striped lily tulip ‘Marilyn’: the Blackpool rock effect does rather undermine the elegance of the form.
My two favourite single tulips are both classics: ‘Menton’ and ‘Queen of Night’. It’s funny how despite the many new hybrids I tried, nothing impressed me in the line of singles quite like these. The late ‘Menton’, soft peachy pink, is a huge egg-shaped tulip, soundly perennial with great garden presence, and an impressive vase life. ‘Queen of Night’, of course, should be in every garden. It’s so reliable and it goes with just about every combination of colour you can imagine. (And you won’t pay a small fortune for it either.)
Cutting and Arranging Tulips
Flower farmers don’t cut their tulips; they pull them up bulb and all, and often dry store them in a cooler until needed. It’s a way of getting a nice long stem and also allows them to have a longer season. The bulbs are then simply thrown out. For us gardeners, throwing out the bulb can seem a waste, but many tulips don’t come back well anyway. If you want them to return, try not to take too many leaves if you cut them for the vase, and, when the flowers finish, deadhead and allow the leaves to die down naturally. And select the right types: the best for naturalising are said to be Botanical, Viridflora, Darwin hybrid, Triumph, and Greigii, but I find lily-flowered very reliable too.
As for arranging tulips, well, you can make the fanciest display you like, placing each individual flower just so, and within hours they will have all moved into the position that suits them better and after about three days have gone by you won’t even recognise it as your work. This is partly because, unlike most plants, tulips continue to grow after they are cut, and their stems love to bend and weave. In the arrangement below, I tried so hard to get some tulips to stay in the middle, but not a chance, each morning they had moved back to where they preferred to be. I just let them get on with it.
And tulips droop naturally too. All this hoo-ha on TikTok and such forums about putting copper pennies in the vase or putting a pin through the stem under the head (all very old tricks for reviving tulips presented as new ‘hacks’) forget to take this into account. Of course, if the stem is soft, it is probably wilting, but if not it is probably just naturally drooping. Do you really want all your tulips to stand to attention? If so, maybe invest in a tulipière.
During the seventeenth-century tulip mania in The Netherlands, when tulip bulbs were highly prized, Delft began to produce highly elaborate vases specifically designed for their display and called tulipières. If you look into this further, you’ll notice that some people claim these were used to force tulip bulbs, with bulbs placed in the openings and all the roots taking water from a common reservoir. Looking at the size of the openings, I think it very unlikely, and that they were probably used only for the cut flowers.
For some other examples, and some images showing them in use, check out Heinen Delfts Blauw on Etsy.
An afterword: I decided to see if I could find a Dutch flower painting that showed a tulipière. I couldn’t, but the first image that came up when I googled was this painting by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621), ‘Flowers in a Glass Vase’.
According to the National Gallery, these are two of the most highly prized tulip varieties of the time, and, wouldn’t you know it, there it is again, one more red and yellow striped tulip.
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