The fabled ‘Semper Augustus’ tulip with its beautifully choreographed red stripes against white was considered a masterpiece in 17thcentury Holland. It was so rare that only two examples were known about at the height of tulipomania. One was strictly not for sale and the other, which had changed hands for 2000 guilders – just under half the price of an elegant canalside house – was sold with the provocative restriction that the buyer could not sell the tulip on without the permission of the original owner. Gordon Gekko was still describing the frenzied Amsterdam tulip market as ‘the greatest bubble story of all time’ in the 1987 movie, Wall Street. Unbeknown to the chimney sweeps and noblemen who jostled to offer up the most exquisite specimens to the market place in the 1630s, the stripes and feathered markings that made bulbs so covetable were often caused by a virus which caused the flower to ‘break’ its lock on a single colour.
Over time, tulips have been painstakingly bred to take on some of this accidental but covetable flaming and feathering. For the 21stcentury tulip buff, a feast of subtle historic specimens can be seen each spring at Hortus Bulborum in the Netherlands, and the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society . Established in 1836, it still holds a spectacular show each May of the most desirable and beautifully marked ‘florist tulip’ specimens.
Early autumn is, of course, one of the sweetshop moments in the gardening calendar when you can choose bulbs to create your own display next spring. Planting bulbs in containers allows you to create a completely different atmosphere each season: perhaps this is the year to say ‘no’ to the rather exhausting idea of a ‘bulb lasagne’ (which involves cramming in layers of different bulbs to flower in sequence over a longer period ) and take inspiration from the disciplined growers of historic tulips by carefully selecting single varieties for each pot so that you can properly enjoy their exquisite colour and form.
- Order bulbs as soon as you can to plant from late October until December in a mix of 3 parts loam based compost (eg John Innes no.2 or 3) to 1 part grit over a layer of broken crocks for drainage.
- Chicken wire tucked into the pot will protect from squirrels. Cover this with a layer of horticultural grit to keep the pots looking smart and weed free over winter.
What to plant
Bred to look like a classic flamed tulip with rich purple veining over white. Wonderfully elegant and reliable, it flowers over a long period.
An extraordinary member of this satisfying group of deeply crinkled tulips on elegant arching stems. ‘Flaming Parrot’ starts life with golden petals streaked with red. The yellow becomes ivory white as the flower matures.
‘Hemisphere’ becomes increasingly speckled and mottled in a range of raspberry pinks as it matures. One of an intriguing small group of tulips, ‘Hotpants’ and Shirley’ will surprise you in the same way.
La Belle Epoque
Sumptuous, long lasting flowers in a delicate, pale apricot, the colour of antique silk. Fantastic with the earthy tones of a terracotta pot.
A graceful, lily flowered tulip, clear orange, flamed with scarlet. One of the few scented tulips, ‘Ballerina’ has a delicious wallflower fragrance. Even one bulb planted in a pot on your garden table will light up your terrace next April.