What’s not to love about tulips? I'm not talking about those feeble little bunches that you get in the supermarkets, I’m talking about proper field grown tulips, great long stems and lavish bowls of lush colour, big enough to bury your face in, drinking in their beautiful scent, sometimes honey, pehaps citrus, even peppery. So welcome after the flush of Narcissus, their colours a first glimpse of the rich palette that we’ll enjoy for the rest of the flower season.
I’m always startled by so much colour so early. The spring palette is usually far more gentle, Cherry blossom in whites and soft pinks, Blackthorn in the hedges, pristine white Wood Anemones carpeting beneath our woodland’s fresh unfurling lime leaves, joining the haze of the first flush of Bluebells. It’s a gentle symphony of colour.
Then come the tulips. This is another sort of excitement altogether. From the moment the first leaves break cover, the first noses push through the soil, this is where the gardening year’s fun really starts for me. We have our own native wild Tulip, the elegant and subtle yellow Tulipa sylvestris, a diminutive beauty which joins its cousins such as tarda and turkestanica. However add in the exotic red species from the Mediterranean, Asia Minor and the Caucasus and you have the basis for the countless exotically hued hybrids that we enjoy today.
These Tulips have fascinated us since they were first introduced back in the 17th Century and indeed led to the Tulip mania that swept Europe and particularly Holland. Fortunes were made and lost investing in particularly unique flamed and feathered hybrid forms. There was a magic in these extraordinary beasts, they were the darling of the Flemish masters and their exquisite paintings still influence floral design today. It was only in the 1930s that the cause for these forms was found to be Tulip Breaking Virus, which whilst unaffecting the vigour of the plants, caused the rash of extraordinary forms that we see today.
New forms are constantly being bred and thus we have the almost bewildering array of colours and shapes available now. The arrival of the tulip catalogues presents a bit of a dilemma for us, which ones to go for each year? Whilst we have our firm favourites, fashion, as in all else, holds sway and trying to cater for the needs of our florists needs careful research. Last year La Belle Epoque was everywhere and hugely in demand. A subtle confection of pearly peach, cream and beige, she sports lucious full double blooms, destined to grace many a bridal bouquet. This year she is still in huge demand and we sold ours before they even opened.
We don’t grow any of the coarse coloured single forms that you see so ubiquitously in the supermarkets, we couldn’t compete with their price and neither would we wish too. Supermarket tulips are grown hydroponically in vast factories. Countless millions of bulbs are grown in countless millions of plastic trays, bathed in chemicals and subjected to chilling and heat in order to meet the supermarket’s demands for cheap throw away colour. Our tulips and those of the growing legion of British growers are of another order altogether. Glorious strong and tall stems, often richly coloured, support huge bowls of colour. Just five in vase is a major statement, try fifty and you have a show-stopper of a display. We had a call a couple of weeks ago from a lady in Australia, who wanted something really spectacular for her sister’s 50th birthday, could we help, did we have any Tulips? Oh yes! Fifty fantastic creamy Purissima tulips backed by the silvery gray scrolls of our trademark Cardoon leaves made for an amazing display. At 70cm tall, the tulips made this huge bouquet truly awesome. Even getting it into the van was a struggle but it was completely worth it for the look of astonishment that greeted me when I delivered them to the recipient!
All images and text ©Paul Stickland. First published in The Sherborne Times, May 2019