Tulips: From Wildflower to Cut Flower, Part 4 of 4, America, and the Dutch BulbMasters

Tulips Across the Ocean

The first reports of tulips in America were brought by Dutch emigrants, settling in New Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century. No doubt subsequent emigrants from Leiden and other Dutch cities also brought tulips along with them. In 1698, William Penn received a report of John Tatem's "great and stately palace" with a garden full of tulips in Pennsylvania. (Pavord, Tulips, p 264.)

From the 1730's, John Bartram, a Pennsylvania botanist, scoured the countryside shipping plants back to England. He collected seeds and plant specimens, establishing a trans-Atlantic hub of plant exploration through his exchanges with the London merchant Peter Collinson. Plants from Bartram's garden were propagated, shared and greatly coveted by gardeners in England and Europe. In 1765, Bartram was appointed the 'Royal Botanist” by King George III. (Bartram's Garden.)

Often in exchange for the plants and seeds Bartram sent, he would receive plants and goods from Collinson. Planting these European flowers on his upper terrace, “Bartram kept the flowers he received from Collinson, Miller and his other customers in England. As well as bulbs such as hyacinths, tulips, anemones, narcissi and lilies . . .” (Wulf, The Brothers Gardeners, p. 74-75.) Colonial gardeners coveted these new plants every bit as much as the Europeans desired American native plans. More often than not, these gardeners were members of the landowner class, possibly the middle class, though records are scarce. (Photo at right of a stone carving of a tulip at Bartram's Garden, Philadelphia.)

John Custis, Martha Washington's father-in-law from her first marriage, received tulips, as well as other plants, from his English friends. (Wulf, Founding Gardeners, p. 22.) Thomas Jefferson planted tulips in his garden, preferring the “most handsome” varieties of flowers and commented the “belles of the day, have their short reign of beauty and splendor and retire” – “the hyacinths and tulips are off the stage, giving way to the Belladonnas, as well as the Tuberoses, etc.” he wrote. (Wulf, Founding Gardeners, p. 187.)

Jefferson was a connoisseur of flowers, choosing the highly developed florist tulips rather than the breeders. While he was in Paris, in 1786, “he sent double tulip bulbs to Frances Eppes at Monticello.” Jefferson mentioned the tulip more than any other flower in his Garden Book. Ordering through Bernard McMahon in 1806, Jefferson received a shipment of Bizarre, Bybloemen and Rose tulips as well as the Baguet Rigauts and Primo Baguets, some of the most desired tulips for centuries. Jefferson was an avid correspondent, and much is known for his love of plants, and his aim to instill the love and knowledge of gardening with his family.

As was common at this time, tulips and bulbs were not used in bedding schemes, as I'm sure the cost would have been prohibitive, especially considering the shipping charges. “Jefferson's modest planting of 50 ranunculus, 24 anemones, 27 hyacinths, and 20 tulips in 1807” could be compared with today's average bulb collection, except perhaps in their rarity. Jefferson's style of planting was to plant a single species to each bed.

However, in the following year, it was noted he had 40 flourishing tulips followed by a disappointing spring the next “neither the hyacinths nor tulips grow as regularly this spring as they did the last.” (Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.)

Henry Mitchell, acclaimed garden columnist for the Washington Post during the 1970's, and frequent visitor to Monticello, “probably 150 times', saw Tulipa clusiana on his first visit and was told they were descendants from Jefferson's original garden. Mitchell particularly admired the Lady tulip, and has written about their longevity and tendency to increase. (Mitchell, One Man's Garden.)

In 1849, the first Dutch traveling bulb salesman, Hendrick van der Schoot, came to the United States and traveled the country taking orders for tulips and other bulbs. (Pavord, Tulips, p. 267.) Sale were brisk, as many Dutch and other European immigrants desired to have a little bit of the old country in their gardens.

In 1897, John Scheepers came to America from The Netherlands. In crossing the Atlantic, he met a bulb exporter who offered Scheepers the position as his American representative. After becoming a naturalized citizen in the early twentieth century, he started his bulb company, John Scheepers, Inc. Calling his bulb catalog, "Beauty from Bulbs", it published for years in hardback with watercolor illustrations. Mr. Scheepers was either a member or director of many bulb and horticultural societies and was instrumental in persuading the Holland Bulb Industry to donate one million bulbs for his exhibitions at the New York World's Fair Grounds in 1939-1940, as well as a donation of 250,000 bulbs for the San Fransicso-Golden Gate Exhibition in 1939.

Scheepers is credited with revolutionizing the way tulips were used in the United States with his design concept of mass bulb planting. John Scheepers was the first to introduce the Darwin hybrids into the United States in 1951, with the hit tulips 'Apeldoorn' and 'Golden Apeldoorn' just shortly after their development. Darwin Hybrid tulips opened the floodgates with many new colors introduced each year. America embraced the new, easy to grow tulip that returned in the garden each year.

The love of tulips still grows strong with several tulip and bulb festivals in the U.S. The closest is the annual event, Dallas Blooms at the Dallas Arboretum held from the end of February through mid April showcasing a half million bulbs. Pella, Orange City, Iowa; Lehi, Utah, Skagit Valley Washington; and Woodburn, Oregon are the most notable other tulip displays. The largest tulip and bulb festival is the Canadian tulip Festival in Ottawa, Canada. Many botanic gardens feature tulips among their spring blooming bulbs. The NY Botanical Gardens plants 10,000 tulips in several of their themed gardens.

Bulbmasters – the Dutch

The Dutch had a healthy bulb export business since the middle of the seventeenth century, however to wealthy and aristocratic clients. From around 1860 onwards, the Dutch, always in tune with their time, kept their marketing current. Shipments of bulk bulbs were sent to nurseries across the oceans, particularly to the growing market in the United States. The Dutch were the first to publish their catalogs in the language of the country receiving them — creating even greater interest and demand. Coupled with a salesman force, cheap prices, reasonable payment plans, reliable delivery and free demonstration gardens, it is easy to see how they captured the trade.

To further inspire and entice bulb sales, the Dutch bulb growers were known for their generosity of gifts of  thousands and thousands of bulbs for displays in public parks and botanic gardens in North American, Great Britain and Europe. Even requests for bulbs by clubs we honored. The Dutch, too, worked to eradicate the tulip breaking virus that not only produced the world's most beautiful and unique flowers, but also weakened the bulbs. Even today, fields are inspected on a regular basis to root out in plants exhibiting signs of the virus.

The trend was shifting away from possessing a few, rare, and therefore valuable bulbs to be enjoyed at close inspection, to the enjoyment of masses of blooms grouped together.

Botanists and growers continued experimenting and writing about tulips during the nineteenth century. Botanists from France, Germany, Russia, England and the Netherlands corresponded often and shared bulbs as was done in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to great success. Prior to this time, everyone still thought tulips originated in Turkey. As information was exchanged between botanists of other countries, particularly Russia, breeders and growers in The Netherlands formed expeditions to get seeds of tulips from Central Asia. It was an expedition in the mid-nineteenth century to Central Asia that brought back T. greigii and T. kaufmanniana, and later still T. fosteriana, T. ingens, T. praetans. These botanic tulips were instrumental in developing our modern day hybrid tulip.

Sharing of information with botanists in Middle Asia a century later in the twentieth century brought even more developments. “The exportation of bulbs of wild species from Middle Asia, organized by the Tashkent Botanic Gardens during the period 1929-1934, enabled Dutch bulb growers to bring on the market in the late nineteen fifties a large number of entirely new cultivars resulting from selections of wild Middle Asian species and from crossing the latter with established cultivars. In particular the hybrids of T. fosteriana with Darwin tulips have become popular in recent years.” (Botschantzeva, p. 2.)

It takes from 5-7 years for a seed to mature that produces a flower; often it took several decades to develop marketable crosses and sufficient quantities for sale. As the Dutch bulb market grew, the government often stepped in to organize friendly trade agreements with countries. The period of WWII set back the bulb industry, as it did with many industries. The Dutch continued to use tulips as a commodity when the opportunity arose. At the onset of WWII, “the Bulb Export Company sent four million tulip bulbs to the US in exchange for arms.” (Pavord, Tulips, p. 251.) During periods of starvation in the Netherlands during the war, the Dutch ate tulip bulbs to survive.

After the war, in gratitude to the nation of Canada for the helped they received, The Netherlands donated 10,000 tulips bulbs to the Canadian Tulip Festival Ottawa in gratitude for Canadians having sheltered Princess Juliana and her daughters for the preceding three years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. “The most noteworthy event during their time in Canada was the birth in 1943 of Princess Margriet to Princess Juliana at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. The maternity ward was declared to be officially a temporary part of international territory, so that she would be born in no country and would inherit only her Dutch citizenship from her mother. In 1946, Juliana sent another 20,500 bulbs requesting that a display be created for the hospital, and promised to send 10,000 more bulbs each year.” Queen Juliana continued to send thousands of bulbs each year until her abdication in 1980. The Canadian Tulips festival continues today with over a million bulbs planted, the majority of them tulips. (Canadian Tulip Festival, May 9-19, 2014)

Triumph tulips, blooming in mid-season, came on the market during the 1920's. The Dutch breeder, N. Zanderbergen of Rijnsburg crossed Single Earlies with the Darwin tulips in 1923. Triumph tulips were so named, I suppose, as it was considered a triumph to create this new group of tulips that flowered between the early and late season groups. There are more color selections in the Triumph group than any other group.

Spurring on the interest in tulips internationally was the introduction of the Darwin Hybrid tulips. The first Darwin Hybrid tulip was developed in 1943 by Mr. D. W. Lefeber, the prominent Dutch breeder from Lisse, by crossing the Darwin tulips (now known as Single Lates) with Tulipa fosteriana, 'Madame Lefeber' (now called 'Red Emperor') discovered in 1906. Darwin Hybrids are one of the most popular and longest living of the garden hybrid tulips, carrying large chalice shaped cups on strong sturdy stems up to 30” tall. Darwin Hybrid tulips grow well throughout the United States, including the Texas Panhandle.

Over the centuries, tulips faced a lot of competition from other flowers, but managed to evolve with the changing political and cultural climates. With the influx of new plants from around the world and new styles in landscaping and gardening, and the uncertainty in the occurrence of breaks led to a diminished role of tulips. People never entirely lost their love of tulips, rather changed their appreciation of the flower. From the status at the pinnacle of prized possessions, it gradually was relegated as a reliable staple of the spring garden. Estates and city parks featured the tulip more than other bulbs. Advancements in tulip breeding and marketing led to a thriving cut flower trade. More colors, all sizes, available from Christmas nearly into summer. It’s a remarkable flower for not just its diversity in the wild, but the extent it can be manipulated.

Today, as through the ages, the tulip mirrors our lifestyle and culture. Basically 10-15 types of tulips make up the majority of the billions of bulbs exported from the Netherlands today. Tulips are grown either in huge expanses for the harvest of bulbs, or in climate-controlled greenhouses under timed lights to produce cut flowers to be flown overseas each week, nearly on demand. The Dutch have even figured out how to produce a flower every eight months, rather than twelve, and have shortened the time from seed to mature flower. Today, nearly 80% of tulips come from a Dutch field or greenhouse to your florist, or more often, from your grocers, to your home.

For more on tulips, Gardening With Tulips, Part 1, Species Tulips, click here.


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Wulf, Andrea, Founding Gardeners, The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Angie Hanna, April 8, 2014