For the love of tulips

Sixteen years ago, in February 1998, I went to a press conference at Kew. Anna Pavord was there and said: ‘I’ve just finished a book on tulips. I don’t know whether it will ever be published-it’s a labour of love.’ I congratulated her, but doubted privately whether anyone would want to publish
a book on such a specialised and unfashionable topic: tulips were pleasant enough, but not something to stir the interest of readers.

I could not have been more wrong. A perspicacious publisher bought the book for a record sum and Anna had years of pleasure travelling the world to promote the book and lecture on tulips.

I don’t do bulbs. I have always been a trees-and-shrubs man. Herbaceous plants are pretty weeds and bulbs may be okay, but only in the wild. I had seen Tulipa sylvestris as a very rare native in a Wiltshire wood and growing wild as brilliant-yellow strips between the rows of vines that make the sweet white wine of Monbazillac. I remembered pink T. bakeri in Crete, T. confusa in red and yellow in Armenia and dainty T. australis all over Spain. But I never saw the point of plant-
ing tulips in my own garden.

My first epiphany came five years later, in 2003, when I visited Elizabeth MacLeod Matthews’s garden at Chenies in Buckinghamshire. Some 80 cultivars and 7,000 bulbs had turned her sunken garden into a jazz band of spring colour. I was riveted. But tulips were expensive and why plant something that will probably flower only once?

Roll on five years, for my second epiphany. At Insel Mainau on Lake Constance in Germany, tulips are lifted after they have flowered in formal bedding schemes and planted out in the cherry orchard and meadows by the Schwedenturm. Tens of thousands are massed in successive waves as far as the eye can stretch-quite beautiful. But still I didn’t buy them.

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Roll on another five years for my final epiphany. Last year, I went to Hortus Bulborum in Limmen, Noord-Holland, the living museum of bulbs. It was a late season and the tulips were just beginning-the Greigii and Kaufmanniana forms and hybrids-and, suddenly, I decided that I couldn’t have enough of them (true love is like that-it was utterly overwhelming).

Next day, I went to Keukenhof, as did the whole of Europe, it seemed at the time. I saw how early-flowering tulips could be combined to create colour harmonies and contrasts of shape. I didn’t know it was possible to be so clever with bulbs.

Come the autumn, I scoured every garden centre I could in search of Greigii and Kaufmanniana cultivars and managed to buy 10 each of 13 different ones. I planted them in clumps of five, some 17ft apart, on each side of a long double border (mirror planting is something I learned from Victoria Wakefield’s wonderful borders at Bramdean in Hampshire). Yes, they were expensive and, no, they won’t survive beyond a year or two, but that just means I will have room to experiment with different cultivars next year.

In went the Kaufmannianas: Corona, Giuseppe Verdi, Glück, Johann Strauss (all the ‘composers’ are magnificent), Scarlet Baby and Stresa. They were quickly followed by the Greigiis: Calypso, Corsage, Pinocchio, Quebec, Toronto, Turkish Delight and Zampa. Their early flowering this spring has turned my impetuous passion into a lifelong devotion.

The tulip season progresses through the earlies and lates, singles and doubles, Triumphs, Darwins and Rembrandts until well into May, when the sweet-scented Carnaval de Nice finally unfurls its many-petalled flowers, which are all stripey-crimson and white-set off by variegated leaves. If you don’t know it, I think you should, because, like all converts, I want everyone to share my enthusiasm.

Pick them for the house, too. I love the way they go on growing in a vase, nearly doubling their height in less than a week and turning towards the light. It draws your attention back to them and messes up an arrangement no end-you can’t just plonk them in a vase and leave them there; daily rearrangements are essential. Tulip-love is indeed a many-splendoured thing.

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