[A few months ago my friends and fellow garden bloggers Linda and Mark gave up blogging. On October 22, 2012 Linda wrote: “I've decided I need to spend more time in the real world without always questioning if what I'm doing can be turned into a post. And Mark wants a break from being my photographer.” It really made me think about how much time I was spending ferretting out ideas for posts from my sometimes very boring life. Linda had wanted to do something tactile and wordless; I think she took up drawing again. Ever since the theft of my laptop last fall and the ensuing cyber-chaos I was plunged into, I lost my taste for blogging too. I knew I wanted to keep blogging but I also knew I wanted to change they way I approached blogging. Instead of acting like a reporter hunting all the time for something to write about, I wanted some spontaneity. I often love the words more as they appear on the page in ink before they are ever converted to whatever this is: electricity? Light?
I am planning to scan and post some pages from time to time. Talk about time saving, and putting you closer to what I am actually doing as a writer; I do not write on a keyboard, I only transcribe here.
But before I do…]
Last week I was in Houston, Texas, a stop off before I headed south to the Rio Grande Valley, my past and lots of birds and wild flowers. I had only driven through Houston many times on trips to south Texas during my youth. This was my first visit. I landed in a nice part of town near Rice University at the home of dear fiends of mine. The air quality and heat hit me first, the smells second. And then the sounds, or should I say songs?
There were so many birds in constant song it nearly drowned out the noise of the traffic. It was mostly white-winged doves, scores and scores of white-winged doves in that very forested city. Even their wings whistled when they took to flight. You could not escape their song, which David Allen Sibley describes as a rhythmic hooting reminiscent of owls: “who cooks for you?” As I wandered through the live oak lined streets of central Houston on my way to the Menil Collection on my first day there it was an incredible chorus I heard not only of the ever-present doves, but mocking birds which whirred and chittered like an ADD child never able to complete a tune. And the boat-tailed grackles that always sound like machinery to me. And blue jays, the punk-rockers of bird song; sure they are more like PIL than Adele, but is it any less song?
What I began to realize as I walked is how neatly the bird songs blended with the traffic, even the blowers and mowers of landscape crews. How tightly knit these sounds were. Certainly the doves never entered the house but their constant questioning “who cooks for you?” did. The sounds of this big broiling southern city became impenetrable as I listened closer and closer, trying to separate and identify them. They were sticky, glued together with the coo-cooing of the doves and yes, the drone of traffic. I couldn’t separate them, they wanted to bind and braid. I relaxed into this whole massive murmuring and churning of urban sounds. At points it became so loud, so full, that it became silence.
I would have never heard this silence if I hadn’t had the idea of blogging about the bird songs in the city. Certainly always looking for a post is tiring at times, but sometimes it opens the doors of perception in a wonderful way.
[I noticed that Mark and Linda are back to blogging. Check it out: Each Little World]
In her book Bulb Anna Pavord calls the tulip “…the queen of all bulbs, producing the sexiest, the most capricious, the most various, subtle, powerful, and intriguing flowers that any gardener will ever set eyes on.” I don’t know if I would call them “the sexiest”, but I certainly would call them queens. They have cast a spell over our culture as magical as roses or sunflowers. And they have cast a spell over me.
It seems so flighty to let a simple little bulb, which only shows its face above ground for a brief month or two each spring, capture all my attentions. But tulips do.
Tulip Time is a holiday to me. When I was in the tulips fields of the Skagit Valley with Michael last weekend, I saw some Indians taking pictures of each other among the rainbow of flowers.
“ This is our Holi, “ I said. Holi is the Hindu holiday that celebrates color.
“ It is a very beautiful Holi,” was the reply in broken English.
Beautiful, indeed, my smile said.
I am not a tulip expert by any means, nor a tulip enthusiast. I am a fickle tulip-lover. Some tulips I buy last only a season and are tossed. In my clients’ gardens, where the show must go on, tulips are pulled and replaced with annuals that are again replaced with tulips in fall.
In my own garden I’m much more lackadaisical. I leave the hybrid tulips out in the grasses and weeds at the edge of our gravel drive to see if they’ll rebloom the following year. Some do; some don’t. But it never bothers me. Even my species tulips, some of which sulk and shrink in our soggy climate, don’t upset me too much when they give up, though I sure would live to see Tulipa acuminata bloom again.
I’ll order some new bulbs in the fall.
Tulips are ephemerals. It has always been this peek-a-boo nature; this here-today-gone-tomorrow sort of transience that made me love them. As one after another vanished from the garden and settled into the back of my mind, I felt like I could get on with my life: start the vegetables; clean the basement; read a cheesy novel.
But this year something changed. I started tulip seed that I collected from T. clusiana ‘Lady Jane’ last summer. But what has really changed is my desire to keep a tulip going, not just passively seeing if it makes it. That tulip is ‘Silver Standard’ (1760):
I bought ‘Silver Standard’ and a few other heirloom tulips (see below) last fall from Old House Gardens. I felt my love of tulips needed to graduate to another level. Luckily they are not selling at the inflated prices of the 1600s that crushed the Dutch economy. At that time it was the unique that fetched the highest price, the flamed and feathered tulips. In the 1920’s these tulips’ fantastic coloration was discovered to be caused by a virus. Commercial growers dropped them like a hot potato and they were quickly relegated to specialty groups like the Wakefield and North England Tulip Society, or conservation groups like the Hortus Bulborum in Holland.
Luckily for us scholar and merchant, Scott Kunst, the brains behind Old House Gardens has made these tulips available to the American public.
Scott explains on the Old House website that the virus is benign, though it can spread to other tulips and lilies and recommends growing them away from them. Scot also advised me on how to keep my tulips going so they will bloom next year. The feeding, drying and storing regime he recommended was none-too-complicated. Even my lackadaisy won’t shirk those duties.
I often find virally striated tulips among the many I order each year for my clients’ gardens. I’ve tried to save a few without much luck. Maybe I pull them too early or ignore them too much, as I said I can get pretty lackadaisical about my tulips once they are done blooming. I am trying to save one again this year that stood out in a planting of Bastogne. But mostly I am starting a digital collection. There are so many popping up in the Washington tulips fields. So with my keen eye for the broken, as these fancily colored tulips are called I snapped my way through tuliplandia. Her are a few of my favorites as ephemeral as can be: tulip growers invariably yank them to protect the rest of their crop.
‘Helmar’ is one striated tulip that returned to bloom again this year. Though I don’t recommend it I just let it dry out in its pot last summer and dragged it out into the rain again this spring. Not only did it bloom again but it showed none of the fungal problems my other potted tulips did.
Not all heirloom tulips are stripped or feathered. This lovely ‘Wapen van Leiden’ (1760) has all the subtle charm of a species tulip. It bloomed very early and has good healthy foliage and a robust demeanor for something so delicate. I am looking forward to this one for years to come.
While I was busy gawking at ‘Silver Standard’ on the kitchen window sill, I failed to notice ‘Lac van Rijn’ (1620) had opened in the greenhouse. It had already thrown back its petals to expose this showy interior.
I’m beginning to see what Anna Pavord meant when she called tulips sexy.
When I was a kid each year in spring I got some new clothes or shoes. Spring is all about the new. New growth, new birds and new shoes…and new tulips. Each fall I chose a few new tulips to try. It’s a minor expense with a great pay out. I always seem to forget over the winter what I had planted and I try to avoid reading tags and just let myself be surprised. It’s like finding Easter eggs.
Here are the new ones to me for 2013:
I’ve grown many Tulipa greggii hybrids over the years for my clients and myself. They are reliable and early and if properly placed returning year after year. This was the first time I grew ‘Pinocchio’. It charmed more than any other greggi tulip I’ve grown before. Nice pointy elongated buds, thus ‘Pinocchio’, and a great red with white piping.
Another early one from a group of reliable hardy tulips is ‘Sweetheart’, a T. fosteriana hybrid. I grew it among Euphorbia robbiae (Mrs. Robb’s Bonnet) and with the narcissus ‘Stainless’, which turned out to be an elegant accident.
I love yellow and in particular yellow tulips. ‘Jaap Groot’, a large Darwin hybrid, has an exceptionally beautiful moony luminosity in our gray springs here.
And with great foliage, too, often a not the case with tulips, or many bulbs for that matter.
I always plant a row of tulips in the green house for early bouquets. Sweet ‘Sorbet’ is just starting to bloom when many of the tulips outside are nearly finished.
As is ‘Carousel’ a fringed tulips with splashes of red on a cream field. I was expecting more of a carnival; she is truly elegant.
I am always skeptical of catalogues touting black flowers. They always seem to disappoint. But not ‘Havran’. In bud they were a sooty black.
And in flower a deep eggplant purple, not black but so dark, especially from a distance, I did not feel duped by the catalogues for once. Notice the flower to the left actually has 8 petals. Tulips usually only have 6. If I get it to grow on I’ll call it ‘Batman’.
Washington is nearly as famous as Holland for its tulip fields. Over the passed few weeks I travelled to south Woodburn to see the tulip fields of the Holland America Bulb Farms and north to the Skagit Valley to the kitschy Tulip Town and the classy Roozengaarde.
As they say a picture is worth a thousand words… and those pictures don’t do it justice.
So how can these words?
All good things come to an end.
In the beginning there was the tulip. And it was wild.
Nearly half the 100 species of Tulipa in the world come from a small range of mountains called the Tian Shan that dominates Kyrgyzstan and embraces northern China. Though there is one species that is native as far west as Spain—its name Tulipa australis, literally western tulip, shows what an anomaly it is— most tulips hail from Central Asia. The tulips moved west with man. First into Turkey where it flourished as a garden plant during the Ottoman Empire and then to Europe and in particular Holland, where it was coaxed and coddled into what are now supreme spring garden bulbs. It is a rather brief history of cultivation just over 600 years compared to that of peonies and irises whose cultivation dates back millennia, or cabbage which is said to have been cultivated for the last 7000 years.
I, among many others, have been growing some of these species tulips far from the mountains of Central Asia. I love their delicacy and subtle charms, a world away from the decadent exuberance of the hybrid tulips. The following gallery of species tulip photos were all taken this spring throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Tulipa turkestanica is one of the first to open. This year it began blooming in early March in the Snoqualmie Valley. I grow it in our dry raised driveway, where I grow all my species tulips. Our heavy alluvial soils would be death to these tiny bulbs from the mountains of Turkestan.
My friend Jon Dove has been growing this selection of T. praestans called ‘Fusilier’ for years above this brick wall which provides heat from the afternoon sun and good drainage through the soggy parts of the year, the ideal spot for a species tulip. It also began blooming in early March this very warm winter.
I traveled down to Oregon last week to meet some real species bulb experts. Jane McGary who grows all her tulips from wild collected seed and in the shelter of an elaborate bulb house, recommends not growing species tulips and commercial hybrid tulips in close proximity. The later, she says, carry viruses that could be detrimental to their smaller progenitors.
This lovely yellow tulip in Jane’s collection is an unidentified species collected in the mountains of Iran.
Another of Jane’s seedling tulips in her bulb house growing with fritillaries, her true passion. (See Jane’s Fritillaria article in Pacific Horticulture)
Near Salem, Oregon, where lilacs and crabapples were already in bloom I was lucky to still find a few tulips in bloom at Mark Akimoff’s species bulb nursery Illahe Rare Bulbs. T. ostowskiana has immediately on entered my list of must have species. Lovely showy flowers and look at the wacked-out wavy foliage.
Another first for me is this T. didierii one of the western tulips found in the mountains of northern Italy. In this twisted-tipped bud you can seen the advent of the hybrid lily-flowered tulips.
Closer to home I visited the garden of Rick Kyper, garden designer and bulb enthusiast. His home garden is a treasure trove of rare plants. I was delighted to find T. cretica still in bloom there. The way everyone mentions its name it sounds like the Holy Grail for bulb collectors. Its subtly and beauty were nearly impossible for my camera to catch on that windy and cloudy day.
Rick grows most of his species tulips in pots where he can protect them from pests—rodents love tulips bulbs— and control the amount od moisture they get. But he did plant a few in his garden, where they seem to thrive on the roots of trees and in among other plants. Here T. saxatilis burst out from perennials on the edge of the sidewalk just a few days away from opening.
Back in my own garden T. clusiana, a selection that entered cultivation in 1607, showing its beautiful beet red base on one of the few sunny days we’ve had this spring. This bulb came to me from Old House Gardens (more about them later) who acquires many bulbs from Hortus Bulborum in Limmen, Holland, sort of a living museum of bulbs.
In the beginning there was the tulip.
And it was good.
The tulip is the representative of the small world. The flower simple enough to be drawn by a child is probably the first flower a child ever draws—a stem like a stick, half an oval with a zig-zagging edge—voila le tulip! They can look like a Japanese big-headed anime character, almost comical as they supplicate to the ground after a rainstorm. Poor ol’ tulip-head fell down. It makes me want to laugh childishly.
It is this guilelessness that endears tulips to many. With their Crayola Crayon range of colors and their springtime pertinence, they have come to represent the innocence of spring. Not the virginal innocence of white roses, say, but the innocence of childish laughter.
It is hard to image that at one time in Persia the gift of a red tulip from a man to a woman was a symbol of passionate sexual love. Now tulips, big happy colorful cheap bundles of tulips, had at every grocery store are so devoid of any meaning you could bring them to your officemate for her birthday. The love they represent is a friendly love, a childlike love, the happy love yearning to be shared.
By association this innocence has been twisted into a sense of purity, cleanliness. As a cut flower tulips are very “clean”, but they foist no fragrance to cover our awful bodily odors like lavender or jasmine. It is an implied sort of freshness that comes from the tulip, like a child is fresh.
Unlike the long stem rose, tulips always feel like they came from the garden, not the florist. Tulips for all the efforts of breeders to make them elegant—and if you follow this string of tulipy posts I’m writing, you will see some elegant tulips—still have a hominess about them. Even the poorest gardens boast with the extravagance of a few tulips bulbs each spring. They are easily had and easily planted even the lamest of gardeners can succeed with tulips.
But they also add a note of gracefulness to homely things, lift them up from their hominess. Is this green watering can suddenly more elegant because it is emblazoned with tulips? Is it telling us that if we use this watering can you will be successful at raising flowers; well, at least tulips? Or is it simply decorative, no meaning implied? No meaning at all.
Like this tulip that broke from the pavement in Mexico City.
Last Friday a friend told me that her sister in Florida had called and was complaining about the cold. It had dropped to 53 degrees!
On the other hand here in the Northwest we were yodeling and twittering like spring-addled birds, because it reached 53 degrees. It is rare that these diametrically opposed climates, the temperate Northwest and tropical Southeast, sync up climatically.
I couldn’t help but crow, “We’re as warm as Florida.” It rose up in me like a hallelujah, like the feathered arrogance of robins spilling across the lawn in their pre-nesting-battle games. Everything was hurdling forward, getting kicked far ahead of this aging player by the preternatural warming.
I ran around taking picture of all the tropical looking plants in the garden for yet another tropical post.
(Fatsia japonica variegata)
But then it hit.
Drama queen winter would not be ignored— maybe I declared it spring one too many times in the last few weeks—so she’s hit us with frost, and snow at lower elevations. Everything has pulled back from the exaltations toward the deep quiet within called winter: withinter.
Still the winter had been so mild this year that I haven’t really missed having a tropical vacation. I‘ve been focusing on how marvelously mild it has been here. And keep convincing myself that the lushness of the Northwest is every bit as good as the tropics. Yet I have not put on my shorts, or flip-flops or sunscreen, though my face pinkens on the sunnier days this unusually warm March. I can even feel a homeopathic dose of vitamin D coursing through my veins.
There will be plenty of time for tulipic triumph, magnolian explosions and the endless chatter of nesting and egging. For now I look away from my fantasy that the tropics might be moving ever so slowly northward, and embrace these last few days of winter admiring the snowy whiteness of hybrid hellebores…
…and the chilly blue of Chionodoxa forbesii ‘Blue Giant’ as it pushes through a mat of Cardamine triphylla sparkling with a flurry of flowers. Now that spring is so darned close I’m even feeling a bit of sympathy for the winter I tried to rush out the door by ignoring it.
“It’s seems you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
EACH YEAR, Michael and I take a tropical vacation in February. We’ll at least the last few years. We’ve been to Mexico, India, Nicaragua and back to Mexico. This year for reasons beyond our control we did not. But still I couldn’t get the idea of tropical breezes, tropical fruits and warm sunny beaches out of my mind, even as I was flying to the cold snowy Midwest last week.
Going to see family is its own sort of warm vacation filled with lots of food and laughter. And being in Milwaukee, which was already buried deep in snow when I arrived, made it easy to escape to the tropics, at least for the afternoon.
I went with my mother and sister to the Mitchell Park Domes, the closest I ever got to the tropics in the first half of my life. The three domes are the world’s only conoidal glass houses, the shape allowing a better angle for solar heating and more height for tall trees.
It’s amazing what a little glass, actually each dome is made of 2,200 panes, between you and the frigid snow-scape can do. Of course there is the heating system of low pressure boilers heated by natural gas keeping the 3 domes at the desired temperature for the plants and animals, there are 8 species of tropical birds, toads, frogs, fish, turtles and lizards in the tropical dome, as well as many beneficial insects, they house. I‘ve been going to the domes for a winter escapes since First Lady, Ladybird Johnson dedicated the facility in 1966. And I still get a thrill when I go, discover a new plant and get off on the warm humid air.
Yet when I got home and looked at my pictures I was surprised to see how many pictures I took of plants with white variegation and flowers. Was I subliminally longing to be out in the snow? All winter in the greener-than-green Pacific Northwest I was longing for snow. We had some beautiful hoar frosts, but not a speck of snow. There is something about a world gone white, of being trapped inside, of the cold certainty of snow that I’ve learned to love growing up in Wisconsin, Something that the long gray and green winter of Seattle will never satisfy.
The day I flew out of Milwaukee there was a big snowstorm in process and the morning was a milky blue confection. Strangely I wanted to stay, to make snowmen with my nephew, drink hot chocolate and stare out the window instead of braving the icy streets and runways. Yet brave the streets and runways I did.
When I landed in this lush temperate rainforest I now call home, I realized we were only a few degrees away from being topical, [come, global warming, come!!] yet a few thousand miles from the equator.
post script: for those of you still waiting for the winner of the 2013 winner of the Golden Palette Award at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show ( sorry there was interrupted internet service in the valley before I left) It was RHR Horticulture & Landwave Gardens very tropical garden called “ The Lost Gardener: A Journey From the Wild to the Cultivated”.
p.s.s.(I’d say there is nothing wilder than snow, like being pounced on by a panther)
When I was a young gardener, not at the very beginning of my career when I was in awe of everything, but later, when I had learned a bit about design and plants. I couldn’t walk down a city street without tearing apart each garden I passed and reassembling it as I saw fit. I guess I learned a lot practicing my craft in my head. It took a critical eye and certain amount of educated judgment. But I have too admit there was a lot of arrogant superiority in it.
I knew it all, and they, the hapless gardeners whose gardens I passed knew nothing. It was not a comfortable place to be. And as much time as I spend working in gardens I still think of them as places of comfort: comfort to the senses and the soul.
I have shed a great deal of my “sophisticated “ tastes over the years. And I am more aware of the limits of my knowledge and how to keep them expanding. I have opened my mind and my heart. To put it briefly I make allowances.
But know I have been asked to judge.
I was a bit shocked when I was asked to be a judge for the Northwest Flower and Garden Show this year.
Several of my friends, who have much more illustrious and public careers than I, were also shocked. Not that I am not qualified. I have studied botany and design, have been making gardens for years. And have an unabashed passion for plants. I’m just not that famous. And with the garden show theme this year being “The Silver Screen Takes Root… Gardens Go Hollywood”, you’d think they’d be looking for someone famous.
With 2 other judges I will choose the Golden Palette Award. This award is new to the NWFGS this year and we will award the display garden that best…
That is no small order for the garden designers. It is February after all and it is an indoor garden show. I’ve seen many spectacular display gardens over the 25 years I’ve been attending this show. I cannot shake Molbak’s Tivoli Garden from the early 90s with its carousel and 4-foot tall blue delphiniums from my memory. Nor can I forget Heronswood’s Himalayan woodland a few years ago rustling with fallen leaves and looking truly like a bit of wildness. Nor will I ever forget the wonderful feeling of comfort Christianson’s tousled and quaint farm garden, complete with puddles and weeds, gave me.
As a judge I know I carry these memories. And in all fairness I expect no one to knock them from my memory…
…but then again, maybe this afternoon James Fox and Alex LaVilla and I will be honoring a garden beyond my wildest dreams.
I can’t wait to see what those ambitious and talented designers have been up to. Stay tuned I’ll post the winner tomorrow.