Mad about tulips

Late, a little battered, comes the queen of spring flowering bulbs, the tulip


If ever one needed proof of what an odd and altogether topsy-turvy start to the growing season it has been for Irish gardeners, it’s the unsettlingly late appearance of that elegant queen of spring flowering bulbs, the tulip. But there’s solace to be had in the knowledge that we’re not the only ones who’ve waited so exceptionally long to enjoy the sight of these lovely flowers.

On a tour of the bulb fields and gardens of the Netherlands late last week, I discovered that the Dutch have had to endure a winter every bit as cold and as prolonged as ours was. During my visit to glorious Keukenhof, the famous 32-hectare spring gardens situated just outside the town of Lisse in the heart of the bulb-growing fields in the south, I saw flowerbeds filled with ribbons of jewel-coloured crocuses, grape hyacinths, fritillarias, daffodils, starry anemones, periwinkle-blue chionodoxas, and hyacinths whose intense perfume lingered in the cool spring air. But as for the tulips, usually the biggest stars of the Keukenhof show, they were only just beginning to put in an appearance.

Within the vast glass walls of this historic garden’s exhibition houses, it was a different story. Stepping inside the William-Alexander Pavilion, I was met by the unforgettable sight of more than 100,000 tulips in full bloom. There were graceful tulips, gorgeous tulips, gaudy tulips, multicoloured tulips, variegated tulips and, to be entirely honest, even a few downright ugly tulips. Mentally I gave a great big thumbs- down to the elaborately fringed, scarlet blooms of the ‘Barbados’, whose bristled petals looked as if they had just been fed through a paper-shredder. The same went for ‘Fire of Love’, for its violent combination of variegated foliage and squat scarlet flowers. As for ‘Double Flaming Parrot’, the name alone speaks volumes.

However, there were many beauties, including tulips I’d never seen before but am now determined to grow. In the case of the paeony-flowered tulip, ‘Belle Epoque’ whose petals were a blend of blush and palest apricot and reminded me of an antique taffeta ballgown, it was love at first sight – not only for me but also for one of my brilliant tour guides, well-known gardener Frances MacDonald of the Bay Garden in Co Wexford.

Another I admired was ‘Brown Sugar’, a scented, bicoloured tulip with sturdy stems and large, toffee-orange flowers that would look wonderful grown alongside chartreuse-green euphorbias and bedding wallflowers. As a long-time lover of lily-flowered tulips, I also took a liking to the saturated-pink flowers and stiffly architectural stems of ‘Jazz’. Others that caught my eye for all the right reasons included ‘Sanne’ (soft pink-cream flowers), the oddly-named ‘Cash’ (sizzling orange), ‘National Velvet’ (deep, dark red), and ‘Gorilla’, whose unfortunate name belies the fact that it is in fact a very beautiful tulip with gently fringed, silky purple petals.

Earlier that day our tour group had made a visit to Hortus Bulborum, a living museum of bulbs situated in the quiet village of Limmen, whose collection has been built over the past 90 years and which includes many varieties no longer commercially available. Remarkably, its 60-strong workforce is almost entirely made up of skilled volunteers, many of whom have spent a lifetime in the bulb business and who together have accrued a vast body of horticultural knowledge.

The oldest tulip in the Limmen collection is the famous ‘Duc van Tol’, a red-and-yellow flowering variety that dates from 1595. But there are thousands of others, as well as many other kinds of spring-flowering bulbous plants including heritage or endangered varieties of hyacinth, fritillaria and narcissus. As Jan Valkering, one of Hortus Bulborum’s board members explained, the role of the foundation is not merely to preserve botanical history but also a gene bank that should prove very useful to the tulip breeders of today and tomorrow. After all, any tulip variety that has survived for several hundred years has long ago proved its vigour and powers of longevity.

Later that day, standing in the Willem-Alexander Pavilion surrounded by a great throng of tulip-lovers assembled from all corners of the world, I wondered how many of the flowers on display owed some small part of their genetic heritage to the centuries-old ‘Duc Van Tol’ memorialised in Rembrandt’s paintings. And I recognised the debt I owe to the plant breeders of the past as well as the present. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the glorious spectacle of 100,000 tulips in full, magnificent bloom.

See and I travelled on the Gardens of Holland tour as the guest of the Travel Department, see

April 27th-May 6th: Tulip Fest (rescheduled ),
April 30th-May 12th: Waterford Garden Festival,
Also, the James Joyce Tulip Portrait is flowering now at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin