I don't know about you, but i've seldomly been looking forward to the sunshine of spring more than this year. Although we still have a few months to go before the bright green starts to pop, tulip season has in fact already started. Time to bring a hint of freshness into the home!
Luckily, tulips are sold at both supermarkets and convenience stores as well as flower shops, so even in a partial lockdown, you should be able to get your hands on them. That said, the taller stemmed French tulips you see on this photograph are usually found in more luxurious flower shops.
Being Dutch, it is about time to learn more about our national flower and how to properly care for them. Read on to find out what i learned.
From Central Asia mountains to Dutch Mania
though we very much hijacked the tulip as our Dutch national flower, the bulbs originate from Central Asia. The word 'Tulip' is said to be derived from the word 'Turban', (because of the similarities in shape), and it wasn't until the 16th Century that the Ottoman empire brought the flower to the attention of the West.
The Europeans, with the rich Dutch in particular, were so smitten with the novelty flower, a Tulip Mania ensued, with prices for tulips in the Netherlands going through the roof (a bulb going for a house) before dramatically collapsing. After a short crisis, the prizes stabalized again, and the Dutch have remained the leading producer of commercial tulip plants ever since, creating an abundance of colors and varieties and producing over 2 billion flowers and bulbs annually.
Dutch tulip field, image via Pixabay
Stilleven met bloemen, Hans Bollongier, 1639
A national symbol
Since the mania in the Dutch 'golden age' (debate is on about whether we should still call it that, as the riches of the Dutch empire were won mostly from slavery, exploitation and claimed foreign land).... Anyway, since the Dutch 'Golden Age' master painters often depicted tulips in their works and the tulip trade was here to stay, the tulip became our nation's symbol.
Since 2019 we even have a stylised orange tulip in our official country logo (click).
Tulips were so valuable back in the day, enormous stacked tulip vases were designed specifically to showcase each individual expensive flower.
Tulip Vases - via The Hague art museum
Tulip taxonomy & a beautiful virus
The tulip is a genus of the Lilly family and is taxonomically divided into 4 subgenera: Clusianae, Orithyia, Tulipa and Eriostemones (more here), with by far most cultivars in the Tulipa group.
However, modern day practicality kicked in, and a new division of 15 groups, based on flower type, size and blooming period was made (see them all here).
The red/white striped petals seen on the botanical drawing here, are the result of a virus 'breaking' the tulip. These were the most sought after flowers during the Tulip Mania, and one bulb of the depicted 'Semper Augustus' could cost as much as a house.
Two Tulips (Semper Augustus), Jacob Marrel, ca 1640
Sadly, the beautiful virus impacts the tulip negatively, and each next generation of bulbs becomes weaker and weaker, until eventually too weak to bloom. As a result, many of the old 'broken' breeds have gone extinct, as did the valuable Semper Augustus.
Although a few breeds survived, like 'Zomerschoon' (Summer's Beauty') and the golden/brown Absalom, 'broken' flowers are considered a threat to gardens and industry nowadays, and the Dutch government has banned the sale of infected bulbs.
Tulips are a great addition to any garden, and super easy to plant. That is: if you remember to plant the bulbs at the appropriate time... Most bulbs should be planted from September to December, and will start to bloom in early spring to give your garden that pop of color. Here's a guide about do's and don'ts when planting tulip bulbs.
If you don't have a garden, or -like me- forgot to plant your bulbs (again), you can still enjoy the tulip as a cut flower. In the Netherlands, tulip season is festively launched around the middle of January each year. Since tulips are grown locally and on open ground, they are considered one of the most sustainable cut flowers in the Netherlands and are available from October to May. (more about that on Milieucentraal)
Tulips can have a vase-life of up to 10 days when cared for properly, and although tulip care is quite similar to most flowers, there are a few things specific to tulips that you should take into account to keep your flowers fresh for longer.
1. Start with picking the right tulips: choose the ones with tall, strong stems and buds that are still closed and mostly green. Make sure to handle the flowers carefully when bringing them home, as stems and leaves are easily snapped. Ideally place them in a vase immediately. If you can't, keep the tulips in their sleeve and place the stems in cold water until you're ready to arrange them.
2. Choose a vase as tall as at least half the length of the flowers to prevent stooping. Clean the vase thoroughly and prepare with cold water with mixed in flower food.
4. Arrange your tulips spaciously in the vase, making sure the stems are not squashed together. If you like, you can use a Flower Constellation to arrange your tulips in a playful and spacious way, like i do on the photograph. Make sure to choose the right hole for each stem, and be careful not to damage them.
image by Masha Bakker Photography
5. Here's the thing you should be aware of: unlike other cut flowers, tulips tend to keep growing while in the vase. Since they grow towards the sun, you should check the vase daily and rotate the vase to keep the stems growing straight.
6. Keep an eye on the water level. As they grow, tulips use a lot of water, meaning you should top it up daily. Ideally refresh the vase every 3-4 days.
7. Place the vase on a cool spot out of direct sunlight or drafts and keep away from the (ethylene emitting) fruitbowl. If you like, you can move your flowers to a cooler spot overnight, keeping them crisp for longer.
Bonus: I have yet to try this, but apparently you can revive droopy tulips by poking a small hole at the top of the stem, right under the flower head. This releases trapped air and can revive the water flow.
One more thing: Don't mix tulips with daffodils or hyacinths. Although you'd think they would compliment eachother in a spring-themed arrangement, flowers like daffodils exude a gel-like substance that can clog up the tulip stems, obstructing the waterflow
Finally: I like to keep my tulips in the vase as long as i can: until they start losing their large petals. However, take note: similar to lilly's, tulip pistils can hold quite a lot of pollen, and these can leave stains on a surface!
Like many flowers, tulips are actually edible. I wouldn't advice taking a bite out of your store-bought bouquet, as they might be treated with something to keep them looking fresh (you never know). Tulips from your own garden however, can successfully be used in a salad, with dip, or as a stylish edible amuse-holder.
Best thing to eat are the petals, which apparently come in all kinds of flavours depending on the color. Generally they supposed to taste a little like sweet lettuce (source), and you should pick them fresh, as they grow bitter over time. The Guardian wrote an article about which flowers to grow for your dishes, <read it here>.
As the Dutch found out in WWII, tulip bulbs can be eaten too. But beware: you have to take out the bitter core, as it is poisonous. Also, it's notoriously nasty-tasting, and many people forced to eat them during the hunger-winter of 44/45, vowed to never eat them again.
image by Bon Appetit via The Guardian
image by Wolfgang Brauner via Pixabay
Ever since tulips were introduced to the Dutch, the flower has played a part in our history: from the high and subsequent low of tulip mania, to the desperation of surviving by eating tulip bulbs during WWII, the colorful flower was there through the good, the bad ánd the ugly. Dutch floriculture export is thriving, and we mainly have the tulip to thank for that.
After researching the flower, i would have loved to be able to recognize at least a few different tulip breeds by eye. Alas, there are just too many cultivars, and new breeds pop up every season.
It was fun to find out about Semper Augustus, the viral infection causing the beautiful coloration on its petals, and the absurd value of a mere bulb.
I'm looking forward to gardens everywhere waking up to spring, and tulips slowly reveiling their splendour and bright color. But before they do, i'm reviving my own sunny feeling indoors with a bouquet of color. Going out to get a bouquet for yourself? Don't forget about your neighbourhood florist!