Tulip Time

Even though your garden may look a little bedraggled this time of year, it’s time to think tulips … planting them, that is. Now’s the perfect time to sow these little beauties for a beautiful border of springtime color.


Photo by John O’Neill via Wikimedia Commons

You’ll want to get your tulips in soon before you experience a heavy frost; optimum time is 4-6 weeks before the ground is frozen. You can find step-by-step sowing instructions on the National Gardening Association website.

But did you know that tulips were at one time as good as gold? Even though more tulips are now said to be grown in the U.S. (than in all of Holland), just 300 miles from my farm, in the Skagit Valley area of Washington State …


Photo by Alistair Wressnigg, Skagit Valley Tulip Festival photo contest honorable mention

at one time, they were so rare, they resulted in the first-ever economic bubble (when asset prices widely deviate from intrinsic values) throughout Europe. This speculative madness even had a name, Tulip Mania, that is still used metaphorically today to refer to any large economic bubble. Tulip Mania occurred in 1637, at the height of the popularity of this relatively new and extraordinary flower.

Tulips were introduced to Europe nearly a hundred years earlier from the Ottoman Empire, but it wasn’t until 1593 that a Flemish botanist experimented with plantings and found the tulips to be hardy and tolerant of the harsh growing conditions of northern Europe. By 1636, tulips were the fourth leading export of the Netherlands (after gin, herring, and cheese).

Their brightly colored petals were rare in flowers of the time, and because of a virus that made unusual stripes and color variations in the flowers, they were considered rare status symbols, gracing the grounds of manors and estates across the continent.


Photo by Taxiarchos228 via Wikimedia Commons

Trade and futures speculation reached a peak in 1637, when a single tulip bulb could sell for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman!

Fortunately, tulips are now a common garden bulb, but they retain their uncommon beauty and the ability to transform your spring garden into a riot of colors. Plant some this fall and enjoy the bounty next spring. And for a real treat, plan a trip to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, where you’ll join hundreds of thousands of people in western Washington from April 1-30 and get to view millions of tulips in full bloom, as well as visit demonstration gardens where you can buy rare bulbs at a cost nearly anyone can afford.


poster, Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

Leave a comment 13 Comments

  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    When we had the good fortune of visiting the Netherlands last Tulip season, I was totally in awe of the fields of tulips as far as the eye could see. Bands of yellow, purple, red and pink were breathtaking! How lucky you are to have a tulip industry so close to where you live. I bet their show is one not to be missed!!

    • MaryJane says:

      I was inspired by your trip to the Netherlands. What trips are you dreaming of now?

      • Winnie Nielsen says:

        Well, we are going to Iceland 12/27 through 1/2 to hopefully see some northern lights, celebrate the New Year and tour about during the limited sunlight hours. Floridians going to Iceland in December, hehehe, people think we are nuts! A group of people we know from here are also going so I think we will have fun. I just bought myself a pair of fleecy lined winter boots. My first since I was a little girl back in Virginia! And I knitted myself some wool socks to wear as well.

  2. Karlyne says:

    I was born in the Skagit Valley, and it’s a gorgeous place. A bit too much rain for my liking, but lovely, anyway!

  3. Want to learn more? Read a novel called ” Tulip Fever” by Deborah Moggach, which as the jacket says: ” deftly evokes 17th century Amsterdam’s vibrant atmosphere…reads like a thriller…set in a refined society ablaze with tulip fever” . Just an amazing read.
    I adore tulips and still regret than when I moved I was unable to dig up my ” Rembrandt” speckled and striped tulips named after the famous ones of that time.

    • MaryJane says:

      Tulip Fever does sound like a good read. I have a few tulips left but the hundreds I’ve planted over the years slowly seem to be eaten by gophers or maybe voles. The critters don’t like iris or daffodils so I have an abundance of those here. My daughter planted a bunch of tulips last weekend. They grow well in town because there isn’t as much varmint pressure there.

      • They say you can plant them in little ” cages” made of chicken wire, but I haven’t tried that. Today I am off to plant my heirloom shaggy :”lion’s head” or ” rip van winkle” daffodils. That is among many other fall chores like digging up tender herbs to bring indoors.

        • MaryJane says:

          I’ve tried both chicken wire and hardware cloth (wire) but when you check on it two years later, it’s rusted away. Where did you get your heirloom daffies?

  4. Cindi Johnson says:

    Okay, you ladies have inspired me to give tulips another try. I planted tulips and crocus last year – lots and lots of them – but not a single tulip came up and only four crocus sprouted thin starter leaves then keeled over in a sad, slow death. I did hear Leslie Lowe (one of our lovely local meteorologists) say something last spring about the lack of insulating snow causing the demise of many bulbs, so maybe I will plant them a pinch deeper this time. Or… stealthly pack myself into my friend’s suitcase when she takes her trip to Holland.

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