My kingdom for a tulip

 

Once almost worth their weight in gold, tulips are more affordable today – we imported 1.2 million bulbs last year and this month sees Ireland’s first Tulip Festival, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

‘I suppose there must be one or two people in the world who choose not to like tulips , but such an aberration is scarcely credible.’

Anna Pavord, The Tulip

SOME SAY THAT it was Augier Ghislain de Busbecq, the 16th-century Flemish diplomat and ambassador to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent, who introduced the tulip to Europe. Others, that it was the intrepid French explorer and naturalist Pierre Belon. But whatever the truth, it’s known for certain that what followed was tulipomania – that strange paroxysm of avarice and recklessness that gripped Holland in the early 17th century and led to extravagant sums of money being bid for single tulip bulbs.

The tulips the 17th-century Dutch traders considered the most covetable came from what are called “broken” bulbs – unbeknownst to their owners, these plants were infected with the tulip-breaking virus (TBV) carried by aphids, causing what were once single-coloured flowers to “break”, resulting in elaborate striping, streaking, mottling, flaming and feathering of the flower petals. But the same disease that

creates such exquisitely coloured flowers is also degenerative, progressively weakening the plant and eventually making propagation through “offsets” (the technical term for the baby bulbs formed by the “mother” bulb) impossible. Thus, with the exception of a handful of cultivars that have somehow survived, almost all of the highly coveted 17th-century “broken” tulips have disappeared from cultivation. This includes the red-and-white striped Semper Augustus – once the most desired tulip of all.

These days, tulips fetch rather more modest sums, which is why Ireland could import 1.2 million bulbs from Holland last year. It’s also the reason well-known garden architect Angela Jupe has been able to plant them in such abundance in her restored walled garden at Bellefield House near Shinrone, Co Offaly ( angelajupe.ie), as has her fellow Offaly gardener Anne Ward, in her nearby garden at Woodland Cottage. The flower’s affordability also inspired these gardeners to come up with the idea of Ireland’s first Tulip Festival – an event that runs from April 21st-28th and includes talks by Dutch tulip expert and photographer Eric Breed as well as a botanical drawing workshop by artist Kathleen O’Connor. The other difference is, while both women grow tulips that are superficially similar to the extravagantly decorative Rembrandt tulips of the 17th century, the many lovely modern cultivars growing in these gardens are not the result of TBV but of modern breeding techniques that have created healthy, stable plants.

When I visited Bellefield last week, Jupe’s walled garden was also filled with the delicately graceful flowers of species tulips such as T sprengeri and T wilsoniana as well as the jewel-like, silk-petalled flowers of many kinds of hybrid tulips including the flame-mahogany flowers of Abu Hassan, the bi-coloured Gavota, the maroon flowers of Black Jack, the deep red Jan Reus and the snow-white/ purple feathered blooms of Rem’s Favourite. All of these are what are known as Triumph tulips – just one of 15 different divisions or groups of tulips that make up the complicated tulip genus. The blood-red, slender-waisted flowers of Red Shine that also grow in Bellefield’s gardens belong to another one of my favourite tulip groups – what’s known as the lily-flowered group – while the flamboyantly frilled parrot tulips that also grow there have a group all to themselves.

Confused? That’s not surprising when you consider the fact that there are more than 3,500 tulip hybrids and species commercially propagated today in what’s considered by many to be the spiritual home of the tulip, Holland.

But whatever about their complicated classification, tulips are generally easy to grow, as Jupe confirms. “I order my bulbs in June from the bulb suppliers Nyssens ( peternyssen.com) and Von Tubergen ( vontubergen.co.uk). They’re such good value that I always order a minimum of 50 of each kind – but I never plant them before November. I always plant deeply (20cm-25cm) which encourages them to flower each year, and with the bulbs tilted almost at a 45-degree angle, which helps prevent them from rotting in damp ground. But rather than dig individual holes for each bulb, I do it the lazy way by using a spade to make slits or trenches, into which I place three to five bulbs at a go before covering them up with soil. And that’s it, really.” One cultivar that Jupe has yet to grow at Bellefield is Molly Bloom, the newly introduced, bluish-flowered Triumph-type tulip that is a cross between Brigitte and Rosamunde. Formally baptised at an event in the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin earlier this month, its name is the result of a competition launched by the Dutch Embassy in Dublin, with the winning entry (that of Limerick woman, Mary McClure) chosen by a committee chaired by former president Mary McAleese.

It took 20 years to bring this tulip cultivar to the point where it could be made commercially available, explains its Dutch breeder Jan Ligthart, who also bred the candy-pink Mary McAleese tulip that grows in the gardens of Áras an Uachtaráin. The plan is that a limited amount of both of these “Irish” tulips will be made exclusively available to Irish gardeners later this year. Expect an outburst of tulipomania when that happens. For more information on the Tulip Festival, see angelajupe.ieand facebook.com/woodlandcottagegarden.

For details on the Dutch tulip fields, see keukenhof.nlfloriade.nl  and hortus-bulborum.nl.

Diary dates

Today marks the beginning of GIY Week, with many events and regional gathering planned around the country. See giyireland.com for details. Also this week, gardener and author Seamus O’Brien will be giving a talk In Search of Good Garden Plants on April 20th at All Hallows (7.30pm). Cheese and wine reception. Tickets €15: tel: 087-9842196. Proceeds to the charity, Arisha Fund

This week in the garden

Check newly-planted trees and shrubs and water if necessary

Weed/hoe beds

Protect young plants/emerging foliage from slug damage

Continue sowing seeds of vegetables, sow seeds of cosmos