The Literary Gardener – April 2017

My heart is smit
With love so strong
I must declare,
But have no tongue.
Come to my aid, Thou Tulip Red,
Go and declare
My love instead.
~ Mandy Kirby, A Victorian Flower Dictionary, 2011

Before beginning to write about tulips, I checked my own plants to find small, green fingertips—fledgling flowers—still nestled cozily within the protective folds of strappy leaves. Over the next month, the stems will elongate, pushing the buds up from their beds like reluctantly roused children. For a few more weeks, though, if I want to enjoy blooming tulips, I must make do with the forced varieties I buy at the store. Somehow, forcing my own seems like cheating.

Tulips have been the objects of a long history of commercial enterprise, beginning with the Dutch in the early 1600s. They devolved into such frenzied buying and selling of tulips that the period became known as the time of “tulipomania.” The flowers were actually traded on the Netherlands stock exchange, some fetching prices that surpassed what average folks earned in a year. Tulip speculation became illegal in 1637, causing prices to plummet and financial ruin among shareholders.

Tulips have not always been associated with the color of money, however. In their native lands, Persia (now Iran) and Turkey, red tulips symbolized passionate love, much like red roses do today. The red color of the blooms stood for a burning heart and the black markings at the base of the petals on the original species signified a heart on fire smoldering into coal. Although the Turks called the flowers lale, the common name is derived from the Turkish word for “turban” because of the flower’s shape when open.

In fact, the flower’s form and colors have changed over the years, much like its names and monetary value. Native tulips had slimmer blooms that curved inward, like a tapered waist, and had pointed tips on the petals. When the very first plant catalogue was produced for the Ottoman Empire in the beginning of the 16th century, an astonishing variety of tulips—more than 1,500— had already been cultivated and given titillating names like “Lover’s Dream.” When conservative Dutchmen got a hold of them though, hybrids were developed with pastel colors and rounder, more matronly, blooms. Less scandalous names were promptly affixed to Dutch cultivars, such as “Silver Standard.” English gardeners also grew tulips in the 17th century, but they were primarily used for formal gardens in public parks.

The French court of Louis XIV had a lot more fun with tulips. Ladies borrowed the Turks’ meaning for red tulips by tucking a flower in their décolletage to signal would-be lovers, and then they expanded the language by wearing a yellow tulip to signify “hopeless love” when the consequences of a tryst were too steep to dare. In addition, white tulips came to symbolize “innocence,” violet for “modesty,” and pink for “affection.” Variegated, or broken, tulips (caused by a virus) meant “beautiful eyes.”

In The Untamed Garden (2011) author Sonia Day tells us that during the reign of Elizabeth I, men munched on tulip bulbs for their Viagra-like effects; otherwise, English herbalist John Parkinson suggested mashing tulip bulbs in red wine to ease a crick in the neck. The bulbs are said to taste like hard onions; nevertheless, they became a last-resort food for starving Europeans during WWII. (Tulip bulbs contain toxins, though, and should not be ingested by people or pets.)

There are more than 2,300 tulip hybrids and cultivars currently listed in the international registry. The flowers come in an astounding array of colors, sizes, and shapes, including frilly “parrot” tulips, “lipstick” tulips in brilliant shades, and even slim-waisted tulips reminiscent of those so loved by the Turks. Never mind 17th century English clergyman and poet, Robert Herrick, who piously observed:

Bright tulips, we do know

You had your coming hither;

And fading-time does show,

That ye must quickly wither.

I’m looking forward to my tulips “coming hither’ in my garden over the next few weeks. Once tulips begin blooming, it’s important to keep the soil moist but not soggy. Tulips don’t need to be fed prior to blooming, but I give them a boost of phosphorous after they bloom when the plants shift their focus to storing food for next year. Bone meal is a slow-releasing and long-lasting source of phosphorous for tulip bulbs, or specially-formulated bulb fertilizers can be purchased.

Once the tulip flowers are spent, I’ll cut back the stems but leave the foliage to die back naturally; otherwise, the bulbs won’t have time to accumulate the reserves they need to grow and bloom next year. In the fall, I’ll set out new bulbs to overwinter, making sure to mulch established and new tulip beds with compost and shredded leaves.

For those who can’t get enough of tulips, the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm’s annual Tulip Fest is going on from 9:00am to 6:00pm every day until April 30 in Woodburn, Oregon. Families, including dogs on leashes, can stroll through 40 acres of tulips of all shapes, sizes and colors. For more information about the Tulip Fest, check out the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm website at

Photo by JC Master Gardener Debra Osborne at Wooden Shoe Farm’s Tulip Festival.