Mad About the Tulip

orange tulips growing

By Barney Bardsley

“The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in”.

This is poet Sylvia Plath: who turns out not to be the tulip’s greatest fan. Although she might well be describing our recent Great Winter Freeze, she is actually talking from her hospital bed, bleached and besieged by illness, following a miscarriage – and resentful of the gaudy tulip’s red vivacity in her white, white room. Doubly resentful, one suspects, since they were brought to her bedside by her difficult husband, that hunk of Yorkshire granite – Ted Hughes. No one more pulsing with life, and power, than he.

tulips-yorkshire-gardensUntil recently, I shared Plath’s dislike for this singular flower. They seemed such show offs in their startling robes of orange, yellow and red; so difficult to manage when cut, with their droopy hollow stems and flaky petals; above all, so artificial – so very plastic. Then someone persuaded me to plant ‘Queen of the Night’, a truly regal – and somewhat satanic – beauty, with flower cups the colour of deep, deep purple. Almost black. And that was it. I was hooked. Now I look forward with anticipation to the sweet May morning when the Queen – her dark beauty set against the acid green of Euphorbia and pale lilac alliums – makes her triumphant, if short-lived, appearance.

“They have to surprise”

Contemporary garden writers fall over themselves to evoke the voluptuous nature of the tulip. Monty Don calls the flower simply “a glorious celebration of sex”. And Anna Pavord, author of scholarly tome and best seller The Tulip, gives this rather delightful explanation, when asked by a journalist why she is so obsessed with the plant. “Why do you marry the man you do? You have to remain intrigued. They have to surprise. It’s true of Trevor and it’s true of tulips.”

But you have to go right back in time to the late Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, to discover the tulip’s true and surprising provenance. Tulip cultivation originates in the time of the mighty Ottoman Empire – first growing wild in Persia and Central Asia. Its natural habitat is mountainous terrain: the bulbs are used to thick layers of snow protecting them when dormant – so it’s all the more remarkable that the country now most famous for their production – Holland – is a flat, damp land, six metres in places below sea level, and so close to the coast that it rarely sees a light frost, let alone deep snow.

It was Sultan Suleiman “the Mighty” of Constantinople who started the craze for tulips during the mid 1500s, encouraging the production of highly cultivated blooms from the bulbs of their wilder cousins. He and his entourage courted the flower as a symbol of wealth and prestige and soon it was forbidden to buy or sell tulips outside of the Ottoman capital – an offence punishable, if not by death, then certainly by expulsion.

“Symbol of perfect, passionate love”

In the 1700s, the Turks held extravagant Tulip Festivals, late at night, under a full moon, with guests vying to wear colours and clothes that most nearly matched the vibrant hues of the real stars of the show: the flowers.And to this day it remains Turkey’s national flower. Turkish legend has it that a certain Prince Farhad was in love with fair maiden Shirin. When he heard she had been killed, he galloped full pelt over the edge of a cliff, crashing to an untimely death. Where each drop of his blood fell, a scarlet tulip sprang: turning the flower into a symbol of perfect, passionate, undying love.

Tulip madness was by no means the sole provenance of the East. In 1593, French-born botanist Carolus Clusius (who escaped France to avoid religious persecution, as a Protestant) became head of the West’s first botanical garden at the University of Leiden in Holland. He brought with him a rare gift from the ambassador to Suleiman’s Ottoman court: tulip bulbs. Love and greed for the plant grew like wild fire among the normally phlegmatic and sensible Dutch. By 1634, Holland – and much of Europe besides – was in the grip of tulipomania. TULIP FEVER! As in Turkey, the tulip became a symbol of elitism and power, with traders charging ever more ludicrous prices for single bulbs. At the height of the fever, it was said that one tulip bulb alone could fetch as much as an entire house in the upmarket districts of Amsterdam!

“Like vast slicks of paint”

Things have settled down somewhat since then. But the Dutch continue to love the flowers – and they cultivate three billion tulip bulbs for export, every single year. The tulip fields are a true spectacle – huge swathes of rich single colours, sloshed, like vast slicks of paint, over flat expanses, as far as the eye can see.

I still have my reservations about the flower. In our grey northern light, its stark hues can sit uneasily against the softer blues and greens of an English country garden. But planted with prudence, the sexy madam certainly has its place. With a hundred species of tulip to choose from, it’s not hard to find one that will please you. Just don’t be tempted to jumble the colours – as Monty Don says: “You are as likely to mix tulips up together successfully as you are to get a good drink by sloshing together half a dozen different great wines”.

Here are three particular beauties: the scarlet ‘Brilliant Star’ (early season); the frilly gold parrot tulip ‘Texas Gold’ (mid season); and my overall winner, the late season jewel, ‘Queen of the Night’. But if in doubt – leave it out. Save your tulip fever for vases indoors. After all, as Sylvia Plath warns in her poem – you are playing with fire. “The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals/They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat.” MIAOW.

‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley is published by John Murray


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