Dance of the tulips

Vernon Hyde/Flickr

Vernon Hyde/Flickr

The Philadelphia Flower Show, running through Sunday, is saluting Holland this year and needless to say, the place is awash in tulips. If you can’t get to Philly, check your local flower shop for cut tulips arriving about now to appreciate the most famous achievement of Dutch nurserymen.

Along with windmills and wooden sabots, we think of tulips as “Dutch” with good reason. The Netherlands is the worldwide center of flower bulb production and has been for nearly 400 years. Every season, growers there harvest 9 billion tulip bulbs, enough to circle the equator seven times, planted the standard four inches apart.

Back in the 17th century, tulips were a hotly sought-after luxury item in Western Europe, fetching prices that drove reckless speculators into bankruptcy. Tulipmania, they called it, a passion beyond reason. Today, when tulips are readily available and inexpensive, we all can enjoy them as the prettiest of spring flowers – but they do have their quirks. 

Grown on the bulb, they tend to stand ramrod straight, rising from their broad leaves like soldiers at attention. In the vase, though, they are rather different and more wayward characters. Tulips are the only common cut flowers that “dance” in the vase.

That's right. Their stems continue to grow, and what at first might have been a bouquet standing tall shortly becomes a lax bunch of flowers, nodding over the edge of your container. These flowers respond to the waxing and waning of the sun, too, even indoors. They open wide during the day, and close their petals as night approaches.

Rather than thinking of all this movement as a flaw, consider the dance of the tulips as a very special example of an ever-changing and ephemeral beauty. When the dance is done and the tulips have reached the end of their vase life, they don’t just fade but completely fall apart, shattering quite dramatically. It’s a diva of a flower, no doubt about it.

Before tulips are at their peak, flowering everywhere in home gardens and public displays, florists usually have a good variety available for sale. There are long-stemmed “French” tulips, fringed ones and double-blossomed kinds in every color. My personal favorites are the highly ruffled “parrot” tulips, usually streaked with flames of contrasting color.

Whatever your preference, a few tricks will help you make the most of these spring beauties. For the longest vase life, buy tulips when the buds are showing color and just starting to break. Take them home and immediately trim an inch or more from the stems so they will take up water efficiently.

Tulips at Keukenhof in the Netherlands   Jayjay P/Flickr 

Tulips at Keukenhof in the Netherlands   Jayjay P/Flickr 

A clean vase and cool water is all tulips need. Don’t add any of the “food” florists commonly pack with cut flowers – it will just speed your tulips through maturity to decline. Cut tulips aren’t hungry, they’re thirsty. Check water daily and top it up, replacing it if it becomes cloudy.

If control is your object, stand tulips in tall glass containers or cut the stems short and arrange them in a short, squat pot. They’ll stay more or less upright for a while. If you love the relaxed look, group them in a container that will allow the flowers to drape themselves artfully over the edge as their stems lengthen.

Should you decide in a few days that things are getting a little too unruly, you can always straighten your tulips’ stems. Remove them from the vase, trim the ends and wrap them snugly in newspaper, tucking in the blossoms but leaving the lower stems bare. Stand the bundle in water in a cool place for an hour or two and straight stems are yours again.

Kept out of direct sun and away from heating vents, tulips should last about a week in the vase. Once they’re done, you’ll just have to do as the Dutch do --  pull on your clogs and get more.

We associate tulips with the Netherlands but this plant isn’t native to northern Europe at all. It began as a wildflower of Ottoman Empire, which ruled over what is now Turkey and areas near the Black Sea, the Crimea and the Caucasus Mountains.

The tulip’s Western name was born of confusion. The Turks called them lale but customarily wore them in their headgear. Europeans came to know the flower genus as tulipa, a Latinized version of the Turkish word for turban.

Among the Turks, tulips were a symbol of the ruling class and the sultans who doted on them held elaborate tulip festivals in their royal gardens. The flower came to Western Europe with ambassadors to the Ottomans and quickly captured attention as an exotic luxury item.

The botanist Carolus Clusius, who took a post with the University of Leiden in 1593, is credited with bringing tulips to Holland. When he wouldn’t share and wouldn’t sell his precious bulbs, the founders of the Dutch bulb trade got them the old-fashioned way: They stole them.

But that’s just another example of the tulip’s irresistible allure. For centuries it has been a favorite among aristocrats, artists and floral designers. Bring a dozen or two home and see if they don’t work their spell on you.