tulip

A few from Sissinghurst, late spring

I’ll take a short break from orchid hunting to share these photos of Sissinghurst, taken May 26. The garden has definitely tipped into its summer chaos, with so many plants blooming together it is hard to take it all in. I’ve realized little and often is the best way for me to experience Sissinghurst in the high season.

On this visit the stars of the show were the German bearded iris, especially those blooming in a long row in the cutting garden. Sissinghurst has quite a collection of historic cultivars, including many of the Benton irises bred by the painter Sir Cedric Morris. Many of them are subtle, with tea-stained coloring that I find intriguing. Dan Pearson has a few good images here, and I was absolutely inspired by his latest image of his Bentons. If anyone could make a bang-up-to-date planting combining a concrete wall and vintage irises, it would have to be Dan. The Sissinghurst irises, below, are identified on hover if the cultivar is known.

Iris ‘Benton Susan’

Iris ‘Beottie’ with Erysimum 'Chelsea Jacket'

Iris ‘Lula Marguerite’

Iris ‘Benton Caramel’

The last of the late-flowering tulips are going over. This is a pretty combination of ‘James Last,’ which I trialled and liked at home this year, and the shorter ‘Blue Parrot.’

The newly replanted purple border is starting to knit together, with Lupin ‘Masterpiece’ stealing the show.

A new planting in the top courtyard is filling in nicely. Lots of good texture here with different leaf forms.

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.

Sugar rush of spring tulips

Two weeks ago I drove to North Yorkshire for the Harrogate Spring Flower Show. En route I bought a box of three doughnuts: salted caramel and chocolate, nutella, and biscoff cookie. Not only was each doughnut decorated with its chosen poison, it was stuffed with it inside too. My husband and I sat in the car at a rest stop parking lot, cold rain pouring down outside, as caramel and frosting dripped down our chins. It was more sugar that we both usually eat in months, but in that moment it was exactly what I wanted...until it made me sick.

This post is a bit like those donuts. What follows is a sugar rush of spring tulips in colors bright enough to make your eyes ache. Subtle, no, but so satisfying after a long, cold English winter. Most images were taken at Sissinghurst April 22. 

Tulipa 'Sanne' and 'Chato', above. 

'Amazing Parrot,' in the foreground, above. 

A new favorite, sadly unidentified, tulip at left and below, along with a longtime love, 'Belle Epoque,' right

Trial beds in the cut flower area of the Sissinghurst nursery. 

Two new favorites are the Rembrant tulips 'Insulinde,' left, and 'Absalom,' right, and growing together in my garden below (with a rogue 'Acuminata'). I love the Rembrants because I am a big fan of a Dutch floral still life painting, and these are some sexy tulips. I haven't always liked tulips, most likely because I was familiar only with the huge, primary colored goblets that seemed too simple and artificial for my taste. But this year, with the discovery of some more sophisticated varieties in a greater range of colors, I am a new fan. 

As lovely as all these tulips are, it's been a tricky year for them with many British gardens being hit by tulip fire disease (Botrytis tulipae). I first noticed it at Great Comp garden, below, at their spring fair on April 15, but I have since seen it at Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, my own garden, and the garden I manage for work. Even the well-known garden designer and plantsperson Dan Pearson has reported it in his garden. This fungal disease is characterized by small round lesions on the leaves and petals of the tulip which spread until the entire plant succumbs in a withered heap. It's a nasty pathogen that can remain active in infected soil, thus it's recommended to immediately lift and burn all infected plants and refrain from planting tulips back in the same area for at least three years. 

The earliest tulips were definitely hit the hardest, which makes sense as cold, wet weather conditions play a large part in this disease and we had a very late, rainy and frosty start to spring. Certain varieties got it worse than others, and the late-flowering varieties seem comparatively unscathed. I'm curious about how other large gardens are planning to manage the disease, and haven't heard a definitive plan from anyone. It's a tricky call to make with lots of money in bulbs and labor on the line in large-scale plantings. I plan to lift and destroy the worst of the plants at work, making a record of their locations, and then this autumn plant fresh bulbs in new areas of the garden where the soil hopefully isn't as contaminated. I also plan to use a preventative fungicide spray as the foliage emerges from the ground next spring. Hopefully that will keep the worst of it at bay and with luck the weather might be better for tulips next year.