Landscaping in Alaska

Brightening the season with various tulip bulbs

Posted: Wednesday, September 13, 2000

The worldwide bulb trade has successfully landed another load of packaged glee on our doorsteps, and all the gardeners are saying "Hurrah." There is no other moment so awaited in the gardening year as this, the arrival of the year's first tulip bulbs. Time bombs of color and delight, they await the burying process to begin their long slow climb into bloom.

Gaudy, ostentatious, obstreperous and all too transitory, these creations from the hands of the geniuses of plant breeding wash in like the tide. They fill all the retail spaces; hardware and lumber stores, grocery stores, Internet sites and mail-order catalogs, and nurseries. They are sold by charitable organizations, hawked in magazines and peddled by roadside gypsies. Tulips are our passion and we indulge ourselves to the max. Or so we think.

England alone imports four times as many tulips as the entire United States. Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy, Japan and Canada are nearly equal to the U.S. per capita use. And in the Low Countries, where their use amounts to an obsession, tulip displays are everywhere.

Here in Juneau the tulips have become a symbol of our seemingly everlasting springs. Tourists emerge from their boats rubbing their eyes in amazement. June or even into July and they can still experience the tulips that were an all too brief puff in Council Bluffs. That national expression of spring like behavior, "Tip-toeing through the Tulips," can still be done while the folks back home are sweltering into puddles of mayonnaise.

Whenever you want to send a photo of the local flora, send a picture of the tulips in July. Your friends and relatives will really be impressed. It's like having Christmas keep on going, every day you wake up and there are more presents under the tree.

Like good marketers everywhere, we tulip merchants fill the air with varieties and types and stretch out the tulip season in any way we can. There are extra early tiny species that look so unusual that they don't even seem to be tulips. Their thick-petalled flowers have short stems and their spotted leaves look weird too. They are the ancestral stock from which our present graceful types have emerged.

The tale of the Dutch Tulip frenzy is well-known; we are surprised that a nation we characterize as "solid" or "conservative" might be so carried away. The Dutch are really adventurers, risk takers and, above all, profit seekers. Tulips are business and the regular tulip was a nice garden flower grown by the thousands, but the occasional one would appear that was swirled or flame shaded. It would be the only one like it in the world and the price it could command was huge. The potential of one chance mutation transforming a common garden flower into the one and only "New New Thing" was just to great to pass up.

The soil that mutated bulbs grew in became valuable, secret fertilizer recipes were developed and the seed from mutated bulbs was grown to flowering by anxious speculators. We now know that the strange swirls and colors are the result of a virus, passed from plant to plant by an aphid, so these techniques were fruitless. Ignorant of the existence of viruses, the occasional appearance of the bizarre colors seemed as capricious as the appearance of comets.

Modern plant breeders use these viruses and many other genetic manipulators to develop new plants. Their increasing abilities to affect the look of new plants means that tulips can now show many traits that were difficult to have before.

One such trait is size, especially giant size. Tulips also have been released that bloom later than usual and these two conditions have been combined. The result is a strain of tulips that get three feet tall, have stems the size of my finger and blooms larger than my hand. These huge plants bloom in June, so they are contemporary with the Candelabra Primroses, lilacs, and rhododendrons. They never fail to draw attention, and since tulips open and close during the day, these huge petals moving up and down are a sight to see.

The names of these varieties are "Blushing Beauty" (pink with cream edge), "Hocus Pocus" (bright yellow), "Lovely Surprise" (deep red with yellow edge), "Peristroika" (pastel pink) and my favorite, "Temple of Beauty" (coral peach).

Tulips are local favorites, their spectacular colors and simple shapes make them easily recognizable, and their low price means that people can feel free to indulge in their glory. Cost or color, Tulips are tops.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to

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