Part 5 of a series of posts on My Garden in Spring by E. A. Bowles

Jim Thorleifson

Tulips

My Garden in Spring (c. 1915)

E. A. Bowles (1865 – 1954)

CHAPTER XV

Tulips

Before I can permit you to go through the archway and down by the Tulip beds I want to air some of my views about Tulips in general, so let us lean on the iron rail of the bridge for a while. It is a very good resting-place in mid-May, for just then it commands the two best views of Tulips in the garden. To our left we can see the long line of choicer sorts growing in a narrow bed under the fruit wall. We look all down this long bed, in which several hundreds of varieties are grown, and seen through the archway the mass of colour is a fine sight on a sunny day. We try to group them in their classes and then again by colours, so that those nearest to us are all Darwins and pink or rose coloured, next come purple and then crimson Darwins, and following them, further away still, are Cottage Tulips, and then the English to finish with. Turning our heads to look straight along the course of the river, we see a stretch of old Yew hedge on our immediate left running parallel with the river bank and starting from the right-hand side of the arch that leads to the kitchen garden and the Tulip beds. The river takes a long curve here, and about half-way along this bend the Yew hedge divides, turning down at a right angle to the path and river, and making room for a terraced garden before the corresponding second portion of Yew hedge, with a similarly down-turned end, is reached. In my childhood’s days the space between these two hedges was filled by a steep grass slope very suitable for rolling down when no nurse was on guard. Then a wall was built at the foot of the slope and filled in behind with soil and the Terrace formed. It is backed by a low parapet with a wide stone coping, on which a row of stone vases stands all the year and a large collection of succulent plants in pots during the summer months. Stone steps lead down to the kitchen garden at both ends, and between them are fifteen box-edged beds and several stone vases. A stone seat in the centre is made out of portions of the balustrade of Old London Bridge, and three of the balusters stand at the heads of the flights of steps and bear stone vases. I found them hidden away among the shrubs here, but could only find three, so one has for its fellow a stone group of The Three Graces with a stone vase on their lovely heads. These beds are filled with Tulips for Spring, and when at their best look very well viewed from the bridge, and reflected in the river. They are backed by flowering fruit trees below the wall, and then the trees of the park rise up behind on the side of the hill. So rest here and gaze while I tell you that in this garden the word Tulip stands only for true species and the May-flowering garden varieties, for I have long ago lost every scrap of affection for the early-flowering garden varieties that are still the most conspicuous Tulips in most public parks and many gardens. I cannot afford them here – space is too valuable, and though of low price they are costly in the end, because very few of them find a sufficiently congenial home in an English garden to think it worth their while to settle down and produce a good flowering bulb for a second year. They are dumpy, easily destroyed by the bad weather they are almost certain to meet with in April, and need to be renewed or largely reinforced annually from Dutch-grown stocks to give a really good effect. I make an exception in favour of a few of intermediate season of flowering combined with good constitution that are neither dumpy nor difficult to keep, and these I should not like to be without. They flower about the last week of April and the first in May. The variegated form of Yellow Prince that lives in Tom Tiddler’s ground is one. White Swan is fairly tall, and bears a beautiful white flower good for borders or cutting. Thomas Moore is an old favourite and a charming shade of soft orange, and Couleur Cardinal is a fiery scarlet when fully open, but in bud and when half expanded has a wonderful plum-like bloom on its crimson external ground-colour. Mr. Van Waveren once told me that he bought the stock of this Tulip when it was first offered. It was one of his earliest purchases, and he gave rather a high price for it. His father, who was present at the sale, asked, ” What fool has bought that? ” and was very angry when he learnt that it was his son. It proved to be a wise investment, however, and has been for many years the best of all red Early Tulips.

When I can speak of a plant as the Tulipa something-or-other it is of course more precious to my botanical mind, and I should like to grow every species of Tulipa, even the starry green and white early flowering ones such as biflora and its near relations, one of which tries to make a floral display in December, but has been so severely snubbed by the Clerk of the Weather that I fear its courage is evaporating and it will end the struggle by dying of a broken heart. These look more like some Star-of-Bethlehem than a Tulip, so I feel the real Tulip season commences with the appearance of T. Kaufmanniana. Plant it six inches deep at least, and leave it alone, and every March its large, water-lily-shaped flowers should herald in the Tulip days. It varies from white to crimson, and on the way can be pure rich yellow flushed outside with red. Many varieties have been selected and named; aurea and coccinea the two finest are very dazzling and wonderful when fully open in the sunshine. I believe in all its forms it has the deep yellow base that helps to make it look like a water-lily on land. T. dasystemon has a somewhat similar appearance on a smaller scale. It is dwarf, and a good bulb will bear several flowers which are pure glistening white when open, with a very bright yellow centre, but when closed they are dull and green and still look like some small Nymphaea bud.

It is a charming plant for the rock garden, and is easy to grow. T. linifolia and T. Maximowiczii are so much alike that it is very hard to distinguish them, but one need not grumble at whichever comes under either name, for both are brilliant scarlet with a black base, of beautiful salver shape when open, and have the neatest possible habit and narrow leaves with waved margins. They do not increase much, but keep in health for many years if occasionally lifted and cleaned by the removal of some of their old jackets. A very curious tuft of woolly hairs ornaments the top of the bulb, and is worth noticing. Batalinii is very closely related to these two, and differs chiefly in the colour of its flowers, which are of a lovely soft butter-yellow, but also in increasing well by offsets. Seedlings vary in colour a good deal: I have had buff, salmon, and orange-coloured forms, and one almost as scarlet as linifolia, but the base was a light slate grey, not nearly so deep in colour as in linifolia. It is quite possible, though, that these colour varieties may be hybrids. One of them was selected some years ago and named Sunset, and received an award at a Temple Show, and I was delighted when I found its exact counterpart among some of my seedlings. T. Batalinii is one of the few Tulips that will sow itself in the rock garden. T. praestans is a great beauty of pure scarlet, and when robust bears two or more flowers on a stem. Two varieties of it are known, and the earliest and best is called var. Tubergeniana. It makes such an early appearance above- ground that it is best planted in a sheltered position facing west or south-west, where it will not be tempted into growth too soon, and the morning sunshine will not fall on its downy leaves while they are still frozen. I have a clump in the rock garden sheltered by some dwarf conifers that in most seasons flares out in its glowing vermilion before one has such a Pomegranate-blossom colouring elsewhere in the open. T. primulina is a refined little many-flowered species, and very charming when open in sunshine, but is rather shy about showing off its charms, and too green outside to make much show when closed. T. stellata is the Himalayan representative of the well-known T. Clusiana, the Lady Tulip, and like it runs about too much at the root making small bulbs, and therefore seldom sends up enough flowers. When they do appear they are very lovely, star-shaped and of a soft sulphur shade, with a deep red base and rosy tints on the outside of the segments, T. oculus solis is rare in English gardens, but grows plentifully round Florence, and it was from thence I obtained it. It appears to be impossible to buy the true plant from nurserymen, as T. praecox is so largely grown under the other’s name. Praecox is a good thing, but is almost always damaged in our gardens by the frosts that worry its large, early flowers. It is taller than oculus solis, and has lighter red flowers, which are greenish on the outside of the three outer segments and wider than they are long. The true oculus solis is deep crimson, and has long, pointed segments; the basal eye is composed of a greater proportion of black and less of yellow than that of praecox, and it is also wise enough to wait for finer weather to open its flowers in.

I must not attempt to describe all the species of Tulipa I tuck away in the rock garden and choice corners of sheltered beds, but cannot leave out two which are special favourites. T. Fosteriana is one, and so brilliantly coloured that at times I think it almost too gorgeous. The vivid scarlet, with the pure yellow or black and yellow of the eye, is absolutely dazzling in the sunlight, and the flowers are so very large for their height; but a long bed of it in Zwanenburg Nursery at Haarlem is one of the most marvellous floral displays I have ever seen. It is none too vigorous here, and has to be carefully nursed in the peach-house border, where only rare or tender treasures are admitted. I will close the list of species with the latest of all, Tulipa Sprengeri, an elegant and tall species with crimson-scarlet flowers; but it is always rather sad to see the first one open, for it means the close of the Tulip season, and that a day or two onward the hot sun and old age will tell on the Darwin and English Tulips that still remain, and it will be time to go round snapping off the fat green seedpods. It is rather fascinating to place a forefinger on the stalk, and then, pressing it towards you, bend over the seed head with your thumb in the opposite direction, until you feel the sudden snap with which the juicy stalk breaks, and it is good to think that you are thereby aiding the ripening of a fat bulb for next season, but I much prefer gently opening the segments of a half-expanded new variety to see what sort of eye it has, and feeling that its full beauty is still to come. Well, “them’s my sentiments” about earlies and species, and now we had better move on and look at the May flowerers before snapping-off time comes upon us. First, then, to the Terrace beds. The shape of the first one we come to is a semicircle, and it is bounded on the straight side by a dry wall built up by the side of the flight of steps and which has a cascade of Rosa Wichuraiana hanging down over the stones and mingling with Othonnopsis cheirifolia, a good, grey-leaved, succulent plant that thrives in this dry garden in a way that often astonishes people from warmer but moister climates. It is a large bed, and takes a good deal of filling, so we use three kinds of Tulips of orange shades, La Merveille, Billietiana ” Sunset,” and Gesneriana aurantiaca, but, excepting this and the two central beds, all the others are filled with one variety only. Thus the next contains Mr. Farncombe Sanders. Tall, and of dazzling rose-scarlet with immense blooms, I do not know a better Tulip for distant effect, and can only charge him with one fault, and that is, he loses his head in sudden danger, for a heavy shower coming quickly after sunshine catches the immense flowers half open and weights them with water till they bend over and snap, and I have seen a bed decimated in this manner in a few minutes. A bed of Clara Butt comes next, and her lovely, soft, warm pink blends well with the scarlet on one side and the deep rich maroon-crimson of King Harold in the next bed. The fine old scarlet Gesneriana, with its wonderful blue eye, is one of the most effective of all Tulips, and so fills two beds on this terrace, and looks very well between King Harold and a bed of the still deeper brown-purple of Philippe de Comines, described in bulb lists as velvety- black. Next we come to the two circular central beds on either side of a fine tripodal stone vase, and these are filled with two yellow varieties in alternating rings. Retroflexa flowers first and goes over rather too soon, so Parisian Beauty, which is a later bloomer, then takes up its duties and keeps the yellow beds bright to the end. We have generally had a bed of La Noire for the next, but although it looks well next to the yellow, it is too dark to be effective from a distance, and most likely will be replaced by something lighter next season. Europe is my favourite of the glowing orange-salmon shades; it is one of the few Darwins with a pure white base, and the bed devoted to it is a lovely sight when full of its flowers. The next bed we thought rather a bold venture when we first planned it, for we were half in doubt whether the cool lilac tint of Erguste would look well between the two salmon scarlets, Europe of the last bed and Laurentia of the next, which are very similar in general outside appearance, but Laurentia differs in possessing a rim of pale blue round the white of the base. However, we were delighted with the effect both when standing among the beds and also from a distance. I have long preached that Erguste is the best of the lilac Darwins, but many people think otherwise and cry up The Rev. Ewbank. I must confess that I am rather particular, and I dislike any Darwin that has a paler edge to the segments, and a dingy grey look about the central darker portion, and I find both of these unpleasing features in Ewbank. To my mind they make it look faded and weary even when young, whereas Erguste is as nearly self-coloured throughout as one could expect, and looks as clean and fresh as a newly washed and starched lilac sunbonnet, until the segments are ready to drop. All these lilac Darwins seem to inherit one fault with their colour, they are more open to flattery than their red brethren, and the west winds of Spring can persuade them that they are indispensable and the world is waiting for them, and that they must hurry up at once, and they generally push out leaves sooner than they should.

The flowers of purple and lilac Darwins, as a rule, open before those of other colours, but that could be forgiven them, and their particular foolishness and unforgiveable sin lies in starting into growth too soon. Last winter was very bad for them in that respect. The west wind roused them in their beds before Christmas, and in a lying spirit declared it was half past winter and time to get up; their hot water was provided by warm showers, and they popped their noses out of the curtains and found it was so pleasant and muggy that they grew away as fast as they could, and so had large, tender leaves and exposed buds by the end of March that would have done them credit a month later; all those bitter winds and cold hail-showers of last April bruised and worried them, and large patches of decay began to show themselves, and then the dreadful ravages of the disease that Tulip- growers call ” fire ” spread through the bed, and ate into the flower-stems, and robbed us of the fine effect we had enjoyed the season before. Another bed of Gesneriana follows Laurentia, and then one of elegans alba, one of the most lovely of Spring flowers. I love the pointed shape of this and its sisters, elegans, fulgens, and retroflexa. They have been named as though they were wild specific forms, but I was told by a Dutch grower that he had spoken to an old man who remembered the first appearance of all four of them in one seed-bed in Holland. It is supposed that they are crosses between T. acuminata and some other form of Gesneriana, the pointed reflexing character of the flowers coming from acuminata, which from its curious, long, slender segments has gained the name of the Chinese Tulip I imagine because they suggest the finger-nails of a mandarin. Elegans alba is much more like a white form of fulgens than of elegans in its greater height, later time of flowering, and less recurved segments. These are pure white, beautifully edged with the finest imaginable wire-edge line of crimson. It is very effective in this bed, but equally good for planting in borders among herbaceous plants. The last of the Terrace beds has for many years been filled with the white-eyed Gesneriana that has two names, Gesneriana albo oculata and Rosalind. It is rather later than the others on the Terrace, and I must confess of too blue a rose colour to go anywhere but at the end, and I expect you can guess that the white bed is placed next to it on purpose to cut it off from the scarlet and salmon shades. Everybody admires it when thus isolated, especially with the evening sunlight shining through it, but in all lights the purity of its white base, with a wee touch of ivory in its very eye, is wonderfully satisfying against the vivid rose segments. It appears to have one of the best constitutions of all, and once purchased should never fail to fill its allotted space and provide offsets for growing on as well. All these beds have to be lifted annually to make way for summer bedding plants, and it is therefore necessary to get the Tulips ripened off as early as possible. So as soon as the segments fall I snap off the seed-heads, and it is wonderful how soon one can lift after the loss of their seedpods has removed all inducement to keep their roots actively at work. We apply the old test of Tulip-growers of bygone days, and as soon as we can curl a flower-stem round a finger without its snapping feel it safe to lift the bulbs and lay them in a dry bed of light soil to ripen off. With this treatment we can generally rely on sound, large bulbs for another season, but we keep a certain number of offsets planted up in the kitchen garden to draw upon should one of our Terrace varieties fail in size or number. So let us turn down the steps at this end of the Terrace and go past these beds of offsets. Many varieties we shall see are flowering freely from the small bulbs, but though as a matter of course the blossoms are not so fine as those from full-sized ones, they are very useful for cutting. Turning to the left, we pass the Strawberry beds, and then the range of vineries and the Crocus frames we visited in February, and so reach the wall and the long bed of Tulips. I have generally planted it in alternate rows of Tulips and Carnations for economy’s sake, on the same principle as the excuse of the child rebuked for extravagance in eating butter and jam on one piece of bread, that it was economical to make the same slice do for both. But this year we tried separating the quondam partners, and were rather pleased at being able to harvest the Tulips earlier than Carnation-layering time, and to manure and crop the vacant ground to get it ready for next season’s bulbs. By this route we come first to the English varieties, the very elite of the Tulip world, for after the Dutch, Flemish, and French florists had developed the Tulip to a certain standard, the English florists took it in hand, and became much more exacting in their requirements, and succeeded in producing a strain of more symmetrical, cup-shaped flowers with purer bases and ground colours than had been known before.

The love of the English Tulip may be an acquired taste, but I am sure it is really good taste, and just as an art connoisseur will turn away from showy, meretricious objects to a really fine piece of work even though it may need looking into and handling to appreciate its best points, so will anyone who compares many Tulips, and has access to really well-grown English florists’ varieties, grow to love the beautiful proportions and delicate featherings or rich contrasts of the best of them more than any gorgeous display of Darwins. Not that I wish in any way to disparage Darwin Tulips for garden display, or even for cutting for large vases in halls and large rooms. But one could not hang the walls of a picture gallery with Limoges enamels instead of pictures, nor banish the Apollo Belvedere from his pedestal in the Vatican to make room for a Japanese netsuke, and so there are no English Tulips on the Terrace, but here they are at the end of the Tulip beds to linger over and enjoy, and to cut for some small, good old glass vases for the dinner-table, or the writing-table in my own sanctum, and for these purposes nothing liliaceous can vie with them. I am sorry to say they are not easy to grow in their best form here; the Breeders break too easily, and some of the finer Roses or Bybloemen become flushed or coarse, but a few good flowers appear each year among them and make us hope to do better next time. Let us examine one or two carefully, that in case you need conversion to a true love for them I may have a chance of effecting it. I wonder how deeply you are steeped in Tulip lore? If you prefer a Rose fr. to a Rose fld. please skip the next page, but if you do not understand those mystic words pray read on. Now I will pick this exquisitely soft-rose coloured one. It is labelled Annie McGregor, Breeder. Notice first the proportions: in outline it is a sphere with the upper one-third removed: see how smoothly rounded the edges of the segments are, how clean and white the base is, and how distinctly it ends and the rose colour commences. This is the form in which this beautiful Tulip first appeared when it flowered in the seed-bed many years ago, and it and one called Mabel are still the best Rose Breeders known. You think Breeder is an ugly name for such a lovely flower? Perhaps it is, but it has a meaning, and tells us how that at one time these self-coloured Tulips were not valued at all for their pure self-colour, but only because they were the possible parents of striped forms. For all seedling florists’ Tulips are self-coloured as seedlings, and remain so for a number of years, seldom less than six but sometimes many more, then a few bulbs of the stock are liable to suddenly change (” break ” is the technical term for it), and the old ground-colour then appears as stripes on whichever colour, white or yellow, was most prevalent in the eye or base of the self-coloured Breeder. Now look at the next row; it is labelled Annie McGregor Rose fld., and you will see that though exactly similar in shape and size, and with the same white eye, this form is practically a white Tulip with finely-pencilled, rose-coloured featherings round the edges of the segments, and up the centre of each there is a broad band, called a flame, of the same rose shade. This is the broken form of the same Tulip, Annie McGregor, and would be shown in the class for Flamed Roses: now you know what fld. means. The next row is labelled similarly, but has ” fr. ” instead of ” fld.” at the end, and you can see at a glance that the flowers are much the same as the last, but the segments are pure white except for the featherings of rose-colour round their edges, and so are Feathered Roses this time, and I may tell you that you are very lucky if you do find this last one as I describe it, for it is precious seldom I can manage to grow a perfect feather in this garden. Higher up the bed you will find Byb. fld. on labels, and will notice that here again we may have the same variety as a lilac self with a white base or as a white flower feathered, or feathered and flamed, with some shade of lilac or purple instead of rose, and these bear the old Dutch name of Bybloemen. Further on we have some selfs, purple, chocolate, or rich red and almost scarlet, but in all of these the bases are bright yellow instead of white, and when they break the ground-colour becomes yellow with marvellous, rich tones of copper, bronze, black, brown, or crimson, mixing or lying alongside, to form the feathers and flames. This group bears the name Bizarre, and they also can be Breeders or fr. or fld. Sir Joseph Paxton is one of the best, and a good instance of a flower that can appear in all three forms of a Bizarre. The flamed Sir Joseph is one of my greatest favourites, and the colouring is like some grand old piece of buhl, and I keep on turning such a flower round and round to try and settle which of its segments is the most perfectly coloured and the best to place towards me as I dine or write. I believe the love for the English Tulip will some day revive and perhaps grow into a rage, and that the noble little band who keep up its cultivation and the Royal National Tulip Society are doing a great work for future gardeners. How many conversions has this sermon produced? The outward and visible sign of one is the posting of a letter to the Secretary of the Society (W. Peters, Farcet House, Cambridge) asking for full particulars and election as a member, and help in the shape of a few bulbs to start your collection. After the rows of English end we come to Cottage Tulips, a very elastic term, for it includes all the late kinds that are not true species, Darwins or florists’ forms. I have too large a collection to be fully described here.

The beautiful illustration (facing p. 176) shows two of my favourites, but it is hard to pick out any and leave out others in such a wonderful range of colours and forms. Walter T. Ware is certainly the best deep yellow, Louis XIV is a wonderful combination of rich plum-purple and golden bronze, and looks as though shot with the two colours. Don Pedro is a rich brown, John Ruskin long and egg-shaped and apricot-orange shaded with rose and lilac, and as if that were not enough has an edge of yellow just the shade of a beaten-up egg. Sir Harry is a lovely mauve-pink, and breaks into a still more wonderful thing known as Striped Beauty, in which the original rosy-lilac shade has crimson and cerise stripes added to it. There are many kinds of various shades of yellow, reckoned as cottage varieties, and some of them have been already mentioned as forming part of the golden store of Tom Tiddler’s ground, but a reserve fund of some of the best is kept here. Pure whites are scarce; Albion and L’Innocence are the best, but Picotee with a rose-coloured edge, and Carnation with more and deeper rose colour, are exquisite pale flowers, and this class includes the two varieties of the Green Tulip, T.viridiflora praecox and tardiva; the former and earlier one is the best with a larger flower, and of a better and softer green; the other has a wide yellow edge to its segments and is not so pleasing. The early one is very pretty when cut and grouped with rose-coloured Tulips. Then we reach the Darwins, and the first few rows here are like the horrid child’s sweet and were pink once, but have broken and so become what the Dutch nurserymen have christened Rembrandt Tulips. Some of them are very beautiful with bold splashes of crimson and scarlet on a white ground, but when they break they always lose a few inches of their stature, and I am afraid some of their grand sturdy constitution goes too, for they never seem as healthy as their breeder forms, the Darwins. Among the red Darwins Isis stands out as the very brightest and best. La Noire is the nearest to black I grow, and quite as near as one wants a flower to be. Margaret is the palest pink I care about. Nigrette is a curious and beautiful brown red, the Bishop the best bright purple and Faust the best dark purple. In among these various kinds, and always in what we consider the choicest, cosiest place, irrespective of what are its neighbours, we plant my best beloved of all Tulips, a wonderful old Dutch variety called Zomerschoon. It has a groundwork of old ivory or softest primrose heavily striped and flamed with a glorious, glowing salmon-red; the base is sulphur yellow, and in the sunlight casts a primrose glow over the whole interior of the flower, especially in a newly-opened blossom. It is seen at its best in the morning sunlight, and when the first blossoms open I find it hard to tear myself away from them, so intensely do I enjoy the glow of the blend of salmon and primrose tints in their cups. As the flowers age the sulphur fades to ivory white and the red markings deepen a good deal: they are still beautiful, but not so marvellously glowing and subtle as in the day-old blossoms. It is a very old Tulip, and I have a rather poor figure of it in a Dutch book dated 1794, but it has always been scarce, as it does not increase so fast as others, and so has always been rather high in price, but the last two years have seen a change, and now eighteen pence will buy a good bulb of it.

The tallest of all Tulips is T. fulgens, one of the pointed-petalled set I have already mentioned. Three feet of stem I should say would be its average height. It is a glowing pure crimson, and its beautiful, soft-yellow base is too pale to be open to an accusation of gaudiness even when seen by the side of so bright a crimson. Some years ago I planted a clump among some patches of Iris ochroleuca, and the effect of the great, sword-shaped leaves of the Iris among the tall Tulips was very good, but the group had to be removed to make way for a new Yew hedge, and I have always meant to make another similar planting, but time and space have not allowed it as yet. This grand Tulip is good almost anywhere, and very suitable in a bed of tall herbaceous plants, as it produces a grand mass of colour in May, and is well out of the way before Delphiniums and other tall plants are clamouring for head-room.

Like other Tulips planted in groups in the permanent borders, it requires lifting and thinning every second or third year, or the bulbs scrouge each other, and grow smaller and weaker until nothing but leaves appear, and Tulips are not worth space as foliage plants.

Edward Augustus Bowles

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