Is it time to rein in tulip mania?
November is usually the best time to plant tulips, but Alice Vincent wonders if it might be time to rein in our unsustainable pursuit of the perfect Instagrammable border
I’m not saying we’ve taken to ruffs and haggling by lamplight, but I do wonder if we’re in the midst of a 21st-century tulip mania. Nearly 400 years ago the lust for tulips in the Netherlands was such that certain bulbs sold for multiples of people’s salaries on contract alone. When the market crashed three years after it bubbled up, many investors walked away empty handed, their fortunes in tatters.
These days, diving into the website of Peter Nyssen for my annual bulb binge hardly holds such peril, but tulips still induce frenzy. It starts in midsummer, with the organised snaffling up the most covetable cultivars while everyone else is on holiday.
What’s less discussed, though, is the innate indulgence of tulips
Once they arrive, the bulbs sit in a cardboard box by the back door for several weeks until one finally musters up the energy to plant them – for tulips it’s worth waiting until November, when it’s cooler, which lowers the risk of tulip fire, the fungal disease that you’ll only know about once they start growing. And then we wait, for months, for the display we’ve probably been planning for nearly a year.
That makes it sound straightforward, and tulips can be deliriously easy to grow. I remember some jolly parrot-style ones (frilly edges on the petals) appearing on my first balcony and being amazed that such splendour appeared from what looked like a bad onion. I included them in my first book, How to Grow Stuff, because they seemed so effortless. But that balcony was free of pests – no foxes, no squirrels, no mice – and the tulips could grow in peace. Within a few years I’d be watching a squirrel uproot bulbs from pots on my new woodland balcony, and Robin Hood-like, bury them in my neighbour’s troughs, and realising my naivety.
I spent most of the first winter burying bulbs, and then shouting at squirrels who dug them up
I spent most of the first winter burying bulbs, and then shouting at squirrels who dug them up. A heavy mulch helped for a week or so. Cayenne pepper or chilli flakes deterred for a while, but had to be replaced every time it rained. The next year, I mixed narcissus bulbs in with the tulips, which seemed to work best, but April’s bulb explosion (gorgeous) was a high price to pay for lacklustre summer perennials in the same spot.
What’s less discussed, though, is the innate indulgence of tulips. They’re technically perennial, but the biggest, blousiest blooms come from annual replacing. Some, such as the delicate, curly petalled Tulipa sylvestris, will naturalise and return for decades, and when I’ve been bothered to lift bulbs, and stored them in a large tub of old compost by the shed, they have come back with surprising vigour in new spots – under trees works better than you might expect.
I hold Instagram responsible; all those gorgeous photos of tulips flopping elegantly from vases
Still, many replace or restock their tulips every year. Plant purchasing and sustainability is something I’m increasingly trying to reckon with: at a time when we ought to be consuming less from a planet ever-more drained of resources, ordering, buying, planting and then uprooting bulbs feels particularly indulgent. It’s tempting to skew towards those flowers that last better in the ground, such as narcissus.
I hold Instagram responsible; all those gorgeous photos of tulips flopping elegantly from vases. From the panic over ordering them to the obsession with lifting and replacing every year. It’s responsible, too, for the boom-and-bust cycles of certain cultivars: ‘La Belle Époque’ is to tulips what ‘Café au Lait’ is to dahlias – popular, and quite boring; I’ve never been able to look at it the same way since my husband called it “belly pork”.
This year, I’ve abstained – landscaping does not a happy tulip bed make – and will be curious to see what returns from the dolly tubs I generously planted last year: the delicate, pink-and-yellow Tulipa saxatilis, especially. Small and unshowy in Love Hearts pastels, they’re about as opposite from the fashionable Dutch Master blouse aesthetic as you could get.
Read all of Alice Vincent's previous columns here, and subscribe to Gardens Illustrated to get them delivered to your door.
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