How to avoid tulip heartbreak.

All things green.
March 28 2006 1:20 PM

Tulip Heartbreak

How to avoid a common fate. Plus: a beginner's garden.

Click here for the first installment of Slate's guide to planting a beginner's garden.

"Little Beauty" tulips might not break your heart 
Click on image to enlarge.
"Little Beauty" tulips might not break your heart

Like a lot of beautiful things, tulips inspire malfeasance, and they take a lot of work to maintain. Careless people pick them. Mice, rats, voles, skunks, squirrels, and deer eat them. Even in Holland, they need a lot of human intervention to thrive, because they'd rather be on a rocky mountainside in Turkey, where they come from. 

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My favorite tulip story comes from The Year of Reading Proust, a memoir by Wesleyan University professor Phyllis Rose. A few years ago, Rose looked out the window of her on-campus house and saw an undergraduate picking a bouquet of tulips from her yard and carrying the flowers uphill toward the dorms. By the time she tracked the tulip thief down, she'd attracted a small crowd. 

"You don't own them," one student said to her, "they're nature. God made them."

"God made them?" said Rose. "You think God made them? Did God call White Flower Farm and order the bulbs? Did God put it on his credit card? Did God dig holes for the bulbs in the fall and mix bone meal in the dirt to feed them and cover them with mulch in the winter? If you think God did that, you're an idiot!"

The student told Rose to "chill." Then, she writes, they spent "several vivacious minutes, engaging in what the Wesleyan Bulletin calls education outside the classroom."

In the past five years, I've spent day after October day planting thousands of tulip bulbs in New York City parks. (I'm not complaining. It's fun, in a masochistic sort of way.) I've watched every spring as the tulips bloomed and an astonishing number of park-goers reached through the fence and picked a bunch. No one argued that God made them, but a couple of people forcefully stated that as city taxpayers they'd already paid for their flowers.   

Home gardeners, even when their yards are theft-free, experience tulip heartbreak. You buy 48 bulbs for $1 or so apiece. You plant them in the cold autumn soil and wait seven months, and they look fabulous the first spring (if they haven't been eaten). But then they don't come back the next year, or if they do, it's with no flowers or pathetically small ones.

Tulips are supposed to come back because they're bulbs, which are essentially nice, fat packages of food stored for the future plant. It's not that tulips are finicky, it's that they need the conditions in which they evolved. Being a bulb was a good strategy in a place like eastern Turkey, where the winters are cold and wet and the summers are hot and dry. For thousands and thousands of years, before they became the most sought-after flower in Western Europe and then in North America, tulip bulbs farther east spent summer in dry ground. They didn't mind the lack of water, and they waited for cold to get them going again. 

But the warm, wet summers of much of North America are hostile to tulip bulbs. Many rot. This is in contrast to their rustic Mediterranean cousins, the daffodils, which usually come back uncomplainingly and long ago developed alkaloids in bulb and stem to avoid being eaten.

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