On The Garden Path: Tulip Bulbs

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Tulipa 'Ice Follies';
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Tulipa 'Mickey Mouse' (Single Early Tulip).
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Tulipa 'Beauty of Volendam' (Triumph Tulip);

The first tulips were brought to Europe from Turkey in the mid-1500s. In the early 1600s, however, they were still rare – mostly found in university botanical gardens. It was at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, where some locals, desperate to get their hands on the rare flowers, climbed the wall of the botanical garden, stole some tulip bulbs and began cultivating them for sale. Thus began the wild ride that became Tulipmania.

The tulips that ‘drove men mad’ were multicolored flowers with distinctive mottled streaks, and no two were alike. During Tulipmania, these bulbs were traded as futures, sold sometimes hundreds of times over a single winter, while the bulbs were still in the ground. Traders earned as much as $60,000 a month in today’s money.

Prices in the ‘Wind Trade,’ so called because little was being traded but promises, finally collapsed in 1637, sending Holland and much of Europe into an economic depression. Tulipmania is still studied, alongside the stock crash of 1929, as a classic example of a speculative market gone out of control.

The bulbs so treasured by the wind traders, however, were damaged goods. The streaks that gave the flowers their exotic looks were actually caused by a plant disease called a mosaic virus. When the bulb industry began to officially classify tulips in the late 19th century, these long-stemmed, diseased varieties with broken colors were grouped together as Rembrandt tulips. They were named after Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, one of the most famous painters in history, who was born July 15, 1606, in Leiden, the Netherlands, a university town in the heart of what would become Holland’s famous bulb-growing region. Though the classification still exists, the true virus-infected Rembrandt tulips are no longer commercially available in Holland and are found there only in historic bulb collections.

Today, thanks to the efforts of Holland’s professional hybridizers, tulips with the same exotic-streaked coloration patterns are widely available. Though often sold as ‘Rembrandt’ tulips, they are actually disease-free, genetically stable look-alikes. They are tulips of various other classifications, such as Single Late or Lily-flowered, that have been bred to have Rembrandt-style colorations.

Among the most popular varieties of Rembrandt-style tulips available to American gardeners are:

  • Tulipa ‘Beauty of Volendam’ (Triumph Tulip) – exceptionally elegant, a cream-colored tulip with deep burgundy-rose feathering that flows upward from the base of each petal;
  • Tulipa ‘Carnaval de Nice’ (Double Late Tulip) – plump and multipetaled with white petals marked in deep red;
  • Tulipa ‘Flaming Parrot’ (Parrot Tulip) – primrose yellow flowers flamed with blood red that mature to creamy white flamed with red; the petals are ruffled and fringed along the edges with an exotic look;
  • Tulipa ‘Ice Follies’ (Triumph Tulip) – a striking white tulip marked in bright red;
  • Tulipa ‘Marilyn’ (Lily-flowered Tulip) – a bright white tulip with fuchsia flames that fan up pointed, slightly ruffled petals;
  • Tulipa ‘Mickey Mouse’ (Single Early Tulip) – brilliant yellow flamed with blood red makes for vivid coloration on a small, perfectly shaped flower;
  • Tulipa ‘Mona Lisa’ (Lily-flowered Tulip) – primrose yellow flamed with deep, berry-red feathering;
  • Tulipa ‘Prinses Irene’ (Single Early Tulip) – rich orange flowers flamed with purple; they are fragrant, long-blooming and resilient;
  • Tulipa ‘Sorbet’ (Single Late Tulip) – white with raspberry-red flames.

Fall Planting Tips

  • Hardy bulbs need winter’s cold to stimulate flowering.
  • If you need to store bulbs before planting, keep them in a cool, dry place – between 50°F. and 60°F.
  • Plant bulbs when nighttime temperatures remain below 50°F., but before the ground freezes.
  • In colder climates, plant September through October; in warmer areas, plant in November and December.
  • Plant bulbs in full or partial sun, in an area with good drainage. (Bulbs will rot in standing water, so avoid areas prone to flooding, such as the bottom of hills or under drainpipes.)
  • Work peat moss or compost into soil to help drainage and rooting; new bulbs do not need fertilizer, but naturalized or perennialized bulbs do.
  • Water well after planting.
  • Plant low-growing bulbs, such as grape hyacinths, in front of taller flowers, such as tulips.
  • Plant bulbs in groups – small clusters or large beds; scatter clusters of early flowering bulbs, such as crocus, throughout the lawn to achieve a natural look.