Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Tulip mania

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Dutch Tulip field

Happy Leap Day! Are you a leap year baby? Go all out and party since your birthday only rolls around every 4 years.

Judy Lange is now a retired schoolteacher from Paragould, Arkansas. Still teaching on Feb 29th 2016, she announced that day she turned sweet 16. It was hilarious when her students went home and told their families they had a teacher younger than themselves!

Leap years always accompany the Summer Olympics and Presidential elections. We have leap years to keep our calendars on time. It takes 365.2422 days for the earth to orbit the sun. What to do with that extra quarter day. Pope Gregory in the 1500s tried to correct the discrepancy but things still went a bit awry until he made a few adjustments. Leap years divisible by 100 are ignored and February has 28 days. If divisible by 400, as with 2020, the extra day is added. Dropping 3 leap days every 400 years keeps the calendar running smooth.

I just spent ten days with two young kids. The youngest was recovering from a stellar episode of stomach and intestinal hyperactivity which lasted over a week. Carpets, floors, furniture, bedding and anything else that stood still were washed or cleaned. She, on the other hand, would gamely eat because of hunger, but we never knew which direction the food would take. Once her body had dealt with the insulting bug, she was back to playing as if nothing had happened. Grilled cheese sandwiches, fruits and yogurts were high on her list of edibles. Not meat. The three year old would raise her chin into the air and shake her head back and forth adamantly stating “I don’t want that.” There’s something to genetics. I remember my Grandma Clip doing that. She’d straighten up, put her nose in the air and start her “this is how the cow ate the cabbage”.

Tulip time. To celebrate the upcoming spring, potted deep red tulips in bloom were put in the center of the dining room table. When the curtains were open, the flowers basked in sunlight. Two days later they were joined by variegated red and yellow tulips, but these bulbs were suspended within a large glass vase in water. The room glowed.

The technical definition for a tulip is a spring-blooming herbaceous bulb producing geophyte. A geophyte is a perennial plant which sprouts in spring from a bulb (daffodil, garlic, lily), tuber (storage structure with eyes like a potato), rhizome (modified stem such as iris, canna) or corm (swollen underground plant stem as the gladiolus). A true bulb is actually a short underground stem base containing a complete plant embryo with leaves, stems and flower buds.

Which makes the tulip or hyacinth even more special. Tulips have a light scent. When hyacinths begin blooming, their floral scent is delightful. The powerful odor of a cluster of blue hyacinth flowers in full bloom can run a person out of the room. Blame indole. This chemical is part of the aromatic compound emitted by flowers. In small amounts indole is enticing, but can be offensive when the odor is heavy and intense (some people say it smells like poo).

In the seventeenth century, Holland became gripped with Tulip Mania. Tulip bulbs were fetching higher and higher prices. In some cases, single tulip bulbs were selling for the price of a house or ten times the annual salary of a skilled craftsman.

British writer Charles Mackay wrote a delightful little book in 1841 focused on the tulip trade “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” One example he gave was a grower offering 12 acres of land for one Semper Augustus bulb. This tulip was one of the most beautiful but rare. It appeared in Europe in the 16th century. Tulips grew wild in the valleys of mountains where China and Tibet met Afghanistan and Russia. They were being cultivated in Istanbul in 1055. In the sixteenth century, the Dutch learned they could grow tulips either from seeds (which took 7 to 10 years before flowering), or buds from the mother bulb that would flower the next year. The Dutch tulip market took off.

Tulip growers strived to grow bulbs that produced flowers of perfect shape, symmetry and color either solid or in regular patterns. Interest sky rocked in bulbs that formed ‘broken flowers’ with asymmetrical lines of intense color between lighter colors. The incredibly valuable Semper Augustus had streaks of deep crimson and pure white radiating from the flower base up through each petal. At one time only twelve bulbs existed. The tulip market abruptly collapsed in February of 1637 because too many buyers reneged on paying higher prices, leaving the traders in a quandary.

In the 20th century the cause of ‘broken flowers’ was discovered to be a mosaic virus. It infected the bulb which in turn produced the second layer of color only in some parts of the flower. If the virus attacks lilies, they die, but tulips can survive. The ‘broken’ tulips are less robust compared to their solid colored counterparts. The Semper Augustus has disappeared in time, but tulip breeders continue to raise well-shaped flowers with pure base colors. They realize down the line most tulips will get the virus and break, but there is always the chance a tulip will emerge with perfect symmetry and petals in breath-taking colors.

Keukenhof in South Holland is known for its tulip gardens. Over 7 million bulbs spread across 79 acres are planted each year by 100 growers. In 2020 Keukenhof is open from March 21st until May 10th. If you want to see magnificent tulip beds as well as hyacinths, daffodils, irises, lilies and other flowers, this is the place to visit.

The bluebirds are now scouting out nesting areas. Put your skills to work and make a bluebird house. Bluebird numbers continue to drop. Why not create a bluebird trail for these early spring nesters. The community where I was staying just planted several bluebird houses along the path between woods and fields. Instead of wood boxes, cans painted like birch wood were used. Both ends were removed. The bottom was replaced with a wood base. Each can had ventilation holes and one entry hole 1.5 inches in diameter. The top of every can was attached to a wood frame also secured to a metal (10’x1”) pole sunk deep into the ground. The houses were about 4 feet off the ground and spaced far apart (recommended 300 feet). Some had large inverted cones on the poles to prevent unwanted visitors.

Bluebirds often produce 2 or even 3 broods a year, so the nests will be in operation for several months. The little bluebirds have soft songs and come in attractive colors. Check out the Monk’s Marketplace in St. Gregory’s Abbey. They have bluebird houses for sale.

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at