Pandemic or no pandemic: The tulips will grow

As we enter the days of late autumnal sun, and lockdown drags on here in the U.K. and in many countries around the world, the tulip season creeps up on us once again. Although many things in the future remain uncertain, including whether our fieldwork will take place in the spring of next year, one thing is for sure: The tulip bulbs are preparing to emerge for another season in flowerbeds, grasslands, and steppes around the globe. So, although seeing these wonderful flowers blooming in the wild once again may just be a distant hope, we know they will be there for years to come.

It always fills me with joy to see these little plants braving the early spring weather and so this year I have decided to attempt to grow a few species in my back garden. These bulbs were kindly gifted to me by Maarten Christenhusz, a leading expert on tulip taxonomy, with a note explicitly stating these were some of the easiest species to grow… well we shall see! Whilst I am quite inexperienced in this endeavour, our project team encompasses the expertise of Cambridge University Botanic Garden staff members Simon Wallis and Paul Aston, who manage the tulip collection here in Cambridge and Thomas Freeth, who looks after the collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Together, these individuals protect and grow the national tulip collection of the U.K., something they take very seriously. So I feel I have some amazing experience to fall back upon when I will inevitably need it.

“Kew’s collection of Tulipa species holds 98 taxa from 208 accessions, with material dating back to the 1960s, and in conjunction with Cambridge is recognised as the most diverse of its kind in the country. These present a vital natural resource for researchers like Brett that are able to use these plants to better understand the relationships between wild species.”

Thomas Freeth (Royal Botanic Gardens Kew)

“We feel privileged to be the present custodians of one of the oldest national collections in the country. We have an important role to play in the cultivation, research, and conservation of Tulipa species so generations to come can enjoy these stunning bulbous plants both in our gardens and in the wild. “

Simon Wallis (Cambridge University Botanic Garden)
The diversity of species in the collections at Cambridge and Kew is astounding. This picture shows the different shapes, sizes, and colours of tulips that can be found in the wild (credit Thomas Freeth above, credit Simon Wallis below)

I am growing tulips in my garden purely for enjoyment, yet the collections at Kew and Cambridge have an extremely important role, acting as ex-situ conservation, research, and educational resources. These living libraries at Kew and at Cambridge are able to provide an enormous amount of material from one small place, whilst also securing these species’ future outside of their threatened native habitat – something which is worth noting next time you are admiring plants in a Botanic Garden. Nonetheless, there are many challenges associated with this type of large-scale project that I will not face in my little patch of London soil. Primarily, at Kew and Cambridge, they grow a broad spectrum of species, some of which are very difficult to cultivate as they require specific conditions and attentive care. Several of these species are rare, have not been proliferated in many collections, and are therefore extremely valuable. This is exactly the scenario that requires the expert skills of people like Simon, Paul, and Tom rather than the basic gardening skills I possess. I am thankful they are around to handle this difficult task. Even so, much like myself, the teams certainly like the challenge of growing these flowers and enjoy seeing them explode into colourful blooms in the spring.   

“We presently grow around 60 species, which are always one of the highlights of the changing displays in our Alpine House each spring.”

Simon Wallis (Cambridge University Botanic Garden)

“Cambridge’s National Collection of Tulipa started off in 1925 with bulbs from William Dykes, keen amateur gardener and botanist, and Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). I often think of the tens of gardeners who have nurtured the collection down the years and helped leave us with such a rich legacy of species. What I love about the collection is that it is expanding with a greater breadth of species and with a greater depth of wild collected material with the help of researchers like Brett. This gives it a vitality as a research collection to add to their floral beauty.”

Paul Aston (Cambridge University Botanic Garden)
Tulipa lemmersii – a relatively new addition to the collection at Cambridge. Our project team is continuously working to expand the collection to represent the diversity of tulips that can be found in the wild. (credit Simon Wallis)

Although many wild species may be too difficult to cultivate in your or my garden, I would certainly recommend having a go at growing this spring favourite. The beauty of tulips – wild as well as horticultural – is: There is something for everyone. For those setting out like me, the wild species Tulipa sylvestris, Tulipa orphanidea, and Tulipa saxatilis present relatively hardy and adaptable species, whilst for those with more capable ‘green’ fingers, species such as Tulipa regelii, that have magnificent ridged leaves, present an exciting challenge. Moreover, an extremely broad range of horticultural tulips that covers almost every colour, shape and size imaginable have been bred to be grown in gardens worldwide and allow those with a desire for colour and creativity to experiment. Whether you go the horticultural or wild route, you are sure to enjoy the excitement of growing tulips.

But if you decide to take up the challenge, then now is the time to plant, if you have not done so already. During October and November tulip collections are readied at both Kew and Cambridge, as well as at an array of other scientific institutions with collections including the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, where some of the most recently described species are grown. Some in pots, some in raised beds, and others left to fend in open gardens. Yet, they are all being meticulously planted, deep enough to survive the winter cold and frost, but close enough to the surface to allow little green shoots to emerge in the warming spring season. I had to carefully pack my soil with horticultural grit to ensure it drained well as bulbs can rot and become diseased in waterlogged soil. A real problem when trying to grow these plants in the wet climate of the U.K.!

At Kew, the bulbs are carefully unwrapped from dry, cool storage and re-potted every year at this time – something that I would call a “luxury treatment”. Whilst at Cambridge the majority of the collection are grown under open-ended polycover in long tom terracota pots plunged in sand and are re-potted on a biennial basis. Both sets end up carefully placed on alpine growing benches where they are protected from the elements by a small roof, but open to the temperature fluctuations of the environment, which are an important seasonal trigger for tulip growth. Mine are tucked in a little corner, with no roof and so may fare a little worse, but I have the hope they will pull through.

Now that my bulbs, those at Kew and Cambridge, and many others around the world are in the ground, it is all a matter of patience. Weather patterns greatly influence growth and so it is difficult to say for certain when species will emerge and whether they will flower. But that is part of the excitement! We know that species tend to have specific months in which they will grow and flower, and this is relatively consistent from year to year, so the experts such as Simon, Paul, and Tom know which ones to look for first. Yet even then, sometimes they emerge a little earlier or later than expected, keeping even the experts on their toes. So, we will all wait in trepidation. I will be looking out the kitchen window to see if a speck of green has risen on our little raised bed, others will be carefully monitoring the numerous pots in the national collection. As the long winter nights roll in and Christmas draws ever nearer, we wait, we must wait. Through the cold long months of January and February, with the promise of spring and the warming weather we wait.

“One of my favourite times of the year is waiting for the first fresh leaves to emerge from their long hibernation. It fills me with expectations of what is to come in the early spring as the first tulips such as the dainty creamy light rose pink Tulipa cretica flower followed some weeks later by the large bold bright red blooms of Tulipa fosteriana.”

Simon Wallis (Cambridge University Botanic Garden)

The strategy is much the same in the pandemic as it is for growing our tulips. We wait. The time is coming where we will once again emerge out into the world, but it is not quite here yet. In the meantime, people continue to work hard even during these difficult times. I am grateful to Tom, Simon, and Paul for looking after these unique collections, to Maarten for providing an exciting addition to our little garden, and to the rest of the project team for their endeavours to collect samples, edit manuscripts, and monitor populations. And, in turn our whole team is exceptionally grateful to everyone working within the healthcare systems of the world as well as other key workers, who not only are keeping us safe, but also risking their lives to keep our society functioning.

“Whether it is donations from Dykes 100 years ago at Cambridge, or Paul and Polly Furse here at Kew in the 1960s, collecting and growing material in systematically arranged botanical collection remains not only relevant today, but crucial for plant conservation and research”

Thomas Freeth (Royal Botanic Gardens Kew)

When the tulips finally emerge, we might also just be able to follow them back out into the world thanks to everyone working together. For now, keep watching for the small leaves to emerge as a sign of better times to come, I know I will in my little tulip haven.

My little patch of London soil, including cat scaring device to ensure the protection of my precious tulips! (credit Brett Wilson)


2 thoughts on “Pandemic or no pandemic: The tulips will grow

  1. Wonderful to watch you braving not only the London weather and soil but as well all other adversities together with your tulips, co-researchers, conservationists and all the other people working for positive Future.

    Liked by 1 person

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