Green stems slowly pierce the softening post-winter soil, yearning for strength from sunshine and rain to allow an almost perfectly symmetrical flower to submit its petals to the warming sun. The tulip: it has become the unspoken signifier of spring. Yet, those vibrant, silky petals do not only symbolize warmer weather. Northeasterners may appreciate the tulip as a harbinger of spring, but it’s also revered throughout the world.
Tulips are the national flower of Turkey, where their history traces them all the way back to. The tulips’ botanical name Tulipa comes from the Turkish word tülbent, “turban,” due to the flower’s resemblance to the turban. Eventually, in 1593 the “King of Bulbs” was introduced to the Dutch when Carolus Clusius, a botanist, planted a garden for medicinal purposes.
During the seventeenth century, only the wealthy could afford to plant a sea of sublime luminosity on their own property. As a unique rarity, the flower generated extravagant prices in Holland; one Viceroy bulb could sell up to the equivalent of $1,250 current USD. Even ordinary bulbs could end up costing the same amount as a house, due to the fact they were priced by weight. Although the tulip’s beauty never dulled, tulipomania peaked in the winter of 1636-37, leaving an over abundance of inventory and eventually causing the market to crash.
What used to be enjoyed only by the rich can now be relished by anyone with a green thumb and a couple dollars to spare. Literally. At $1.98 you can get one-pint full of ordinary tulip bulbs at Lowes. But if you’re in the mood to splurge, the varieties at Home Depot range from inexpensive to quite pricey; multiple varieties of cheaper bulbs cost only $6.98/pack while their most expensive two types of tulip are $36.97/pack, though luckily these most expensive brands come in a pack of eighty bulbs. However, tulips cannot just be planted any way, anywhere. Kristin Burrello, owner and gardener of the beautiful Muddy Feet Flower Farm in Northeast Connecticut, shared her knowledge on the tulip flower. Certain guidelines must be followed in order to achieve a colorful splash of tulips (of roughly any color of the rainbow) across our gardens year after year.
- Purchasing Your Tulip: Though tulips are offered in seed form as well, bulbs are easier to plant and are inexpensive (i.e. you won’t need to trade your house for one like the Dutch). These bulbs can be found at your local gardening store. Or, you can get really fancy and purchase premium, imported, Dutch bulbs from the thousands of varieties listed online at bulb suppliers like Netherland Bulb Company and John Scheepers.
- When to Plant: It used to be said that tulip planting could only be done in autumn, forcing gardeners to wait months to see their hard work pay off at the end of March, the start of the flower’s blooming season. Now, they can be planted in any season so you can witness those effervescent colors in your garden year after year. Burrello explains, “They can be manipulated to bloom at any time by storing them for 6-8 weeks in a cooler temperature, basically by stimulating winter. They have to have that cooling time.”
- How to Plant: Soil and sun are important factors for tulip growth as well. Tulips need full sun and neutral soil with good drainage, such as dry or sandy soil. They will rot in wet conditions. Though tulips will indeed grow in the shade, Burrello warns the flower will be very small, if not nonexistent. With the correct soil and a spot with great sun exposure picked out, you are ready to plant the bulbs. Make a hole at least eight inches deep. The bigger the bulb, the deeper the hole it needs due to loosening the soil around it and allowing proper drainage. Drop the bulb in this hole with the pointy end up, then cover with soil and press firmly. Just like that, you have a planted tulip ready to pop in six to eight weeks! To plant more, make the space between them four to six inches apart and repeat.
- Watering Your Tulips: Given that tulips aren’t a thirsty flower, make sure not to overwater them. In fact, you may be able to rely solely on Mother Nature. On the Muddy Feet Flower Farm, they don’t have to water their tulips because spring naturally brings lots of water either through snowmelt or spring rain. Keep in mind that even though a lot of water maintenance is not necessary, bulbs should be watered right after planting to trigger growth.
- Cutting Your Tulips: Although tulips bring a multitude of colors into our gardens, sometimes we wish to experience their artistry inside our home. There’s nothing better than walking into a home smelling of the sweet aroma of a spring flower while adding a pop of purple, red, yellow, orange, or pink into our rooms. Well, not only do tulips have a long vase life but they can even continue to grow once cut! As a commercial flower grower, Burrello explained the process. “We actually pull the whole flower, attached to the bulb, out of the ground and store them in our cooler. The flower is still connected to its food source and, therefore, is happy and continues to grow. When it’s time to sell them, we cut off the bulb and compost them.” Commercial growers rarely replant these bulbs. Unless there are several leaves leftover, the bulb will not be able to produce any food for itself to regrow. For a noncommercial grower, Burrello instructs to “gently tug at the flower stem in the garden and snap it from the bulb. This will give you an extra six to eight inches of stem length below the surface of the soil. Once cut, you want to keep them as cool as possible and out of direct sun.”
Whoever said that beauty took hard work obviously never planted a tulip. Gardeners at any level can achieve the immaculate, picturesque gardens the Dutch used to spend their nights dreaming about. Four hundred years after the tulip market crash, gardeners everywhere, rich or poor, are able to revel in these goblet-shaped beauties in their own backyards.