It’s tempting to believe that the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century was a result of a passion for fantastically coloured and twisted tulips. I like to think about a society so into gardens its citizens will pay almost anything for a single glorious bulb. (At the market’s dizzy height the particularly rare ‘Semper Augustus’, which bloomed with burgundy-streaked white flowers, was worth the cost of a handsome canal-side house!) Of course investors were after fantastic blooms in their bank accounts rather than in their hothouses. When the bubble burst and the bankruptcies mounted, the tulip emerged less valuable to speculators, but no less desirable to gardeners.
The desire persists, and most of the covers of the new bulb catalogues depict tulips. The tulip is native to the snowy mountainous regions of Turkey but its cultural home is the Netherlands, where tulips are in every garden, on every kitsch souvenir, and deeply integrated into the economy.
Sydney’s climate is not a match with either Turkey or the Netherlands, but that has never stopped Sydney gardeners desiring tulips too. The limiting factor is our pleasant winter. Tulips prefer climates where beanies are protective headgear rather than fashionable accessory. Our mild winters delay flowering, which then occurs just as spring springs a surprise heatwave and ruins the show.
To beat that double whammy, gardeners need to choose early-flowering varieties, and chill them before planting. Order or buy now, and put the bulbs in the crisper for at least six weeks before planting out in May. The chilling speeds flowering, and will help ensure blooms in August. The bulbs should be stored in a loose brown paper bag, or an onion or orange net, in the crisper. They can share the space with vegetables but not with fruit, as the ethylene released by ripening fruit will rot the bulbs.
Even with these strategies tulips grown in Sydney won’t reflower, so are best considered as annuals and used in the same way, in a highly visible area of the garden that is often changed, or even better, in pots. Pots allow for the best show because you can pack the bulbs in thickly, and place it for maximum impact. Cram them in just a centimetre or two apart. (Because bulbs need to be planted at about twice the depth of their length, you can cram bulbs vertically as well as horizontally: plant the bulbs of different species at different levels of the same pot, depending on their size, with a couple of centimetres of potting mix between each level of bulbs.) If you’d rather not leave the container bare until spring, sow or plant winter-flowering annuals such as violas, or primula over the top.
Less showy, and less effort, are some of the South African bulbs, such as freesia, sparaxis, babiana, tritonia and ixia, but none of them has the cultural clout of the tulip.