Dec. 12: Floral advent calendar: Tulipa 'Absalon'

2018 was the year I fell in love with tulips. I’d never really liked them, but looking back I realize that’s because I thought tulips were all like the technicolor mixed municipal displays that just seemed so shouty and coarse. This year I was exposed to some more exotic and refined cultivars that really caught my eye, and I also got into historical tulips that can be more subtly beautiful than their modern counterparts.

One of my top tulips this year was ‘Absalon.’ It’s a very rare Rembrandt tulip from 1780. I just adore its mixed swirls of mahogany and gold, with each bloom having different markings from the next. This color pattern of yellow or white streaks on a purple, red, or brown background is characterized as a “Bizarden” (bizarre) tulip, the rarest of them all.

Rembrandt tulips became popular in 17th century Holland during ‘Tulip Mania,’ the national craze for these “broken,” bicolored tulips. Unbeknownst to the world at the time, the bicolor variations were caused by a tulip-specific mosaic virus that “broke” a petal color into something other than its original. These tulips were so prized they took pride of place in the Dutch floral still life paintings of the time, including in what is probably my favorite painting, Jan van Huysum’s, “Still Life with Flowers and Fruit” (1715). I used to regularly visit this painting when I worked just blocks away from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and I’d stand in front of it and marvel at the life captured in paint. Look closely and you’ll see a tulip that very much resembles ‘Absalon’

Jan van Huysum, Still Life With Flowers and Fruit, 1715. In the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Image in public domain.

I am fortunate to have a couple bulbs of ‘Absalon’ growing in my garden, and at £5.00/bulb they are treasure to me. They bloomed beautifully this year, and I am hoping they return for 2019 as tulip mania has definitely hit my household.