These trees are kin to the evergreen pears (Pyrus kawkamii) that were at peak bloom in the San Fernando Valley a few weeks ago. We can grow cherry and crabapple trees in the Valley easily enough, except they will not flower for us since our winters are not sufficiently cold to bring them into bloom.
One of the hardest horticultural truths to grasp is that some plant species have an absolute need for cold weather.
Some trees, however, accept both cold and warm winters with equanimity. Saucer or tulip magnolias (Magnolia soulangeana) and star magnolias (Magnolia stellata), for example, are also in full bloom in New York City. What a pleasant surprise!
In the Valley, these deciduous magnolias bloom in midwinter but they delay flowering until spring arrives. Their bloom time is brief, never more than a few weeks, so I was lucky to see them in their glory twice this year.
No flower is fresher, cleaner or more refined than the tulip magnolia. No tree species has more delectable varieties in a spectrum of flower colors that stretches from pink to purple, yet with so many slight variations and gradations of color along the way. For good measure, a number of milky white varieties are also available.
The bark of tulip magnolias is fittingly gray. Any other color would interfere with the understated elegance of the blooms.
Star magnolias, incidentally, whose flowers resemble starry snowflakes, are found exclusively in white.
When the saucer magnolia opens its flowers they look more like cups and saucers than just saucers alone. Yet when saucer magnolia flower buds begin to break, just before the outer petals lie flat and horizontal, you will swear you are looking at a tree full of tulips.
Which brings me to the second subject of this week’s column: tulips.
If tulip magnolias’ bloom is brief, that of Dutch tulips is over in a flash, typically lasting a matter of days. Not only are they ephemeral in the garden, a story behind tulips puts them in that class of highly valued, yet highly volatile, precious assets.
We may have survived the dot-com bubble and the real estate bubble. But in Holland in the 1630s, there was a tulip bubble.
Referred to as tulip mania, or tulipomania, it is considered the first case of out-of-control speculation in commodity futures. People were investing 10 years’ wages in a single bulb.
This frenzy has been explained by Holland’s sudden accumulation of riches from newly opened trade routes to the Far East. Fortunes were being made overnight and here was another opportunity for instant riches. Bulbs symbolized wealth since, imported from Turkey, they adorned the estate gardens of shipping barons.
An outbreak of bubonic plague also has been implicated. Buyers thought they might as well gamble on bulbs since they could be felled by the plague at any time.
Tulip biology fanned the flames of speculation. The most expensive tulips were rare striped specimens. This ornamental quality, however, was the result of a debilitating mosaic virus. In many plants, striping or variegation is virus related. Thus, striped bulbs were constitutionally weak. Under ordinary circumstances, it may take a tulip bulb three years to produce another bulb ready to send up a flower of its own, but this time was extended with striped bulbs, some of which were incapable of reproducing bulbs altogether.
And seeds from striped bulbs, unlike those from solid colors, did not produce striped tulips, further reducing propagation possibilities.
Finally, tulips do not produce toxins that serve to deter rodents, like other bulbs in the lily family. So tulip storage, too, was a risky proposition, adding to the striped bulbs’ scarcity.
Naturally, the tulip bubble eventually burst since the bulbs’ intrinsic value was minuscule compared to their astronomical, speculative prices.
If you want to grow Dutch hybrid tulips today, including striped varieties, you are obliged to refrigerate them for six weeks prior to planting in order to be assured they receive the cold they require.
These hybrids also have difficulty spreading in the garden since their bulbs are somewhat finicky and do not come true from seed.
However, there are also non-hybridized, species tulips that require less chilling and produce bulbs and seeds with alacrity.
Water-lily tulip (Tulipa kaufmanniana) is an example of a species tulip. Its flower petals open flat like those of a water lily and thus its name. Fusilier tulip (Tulipa praestans) displays orange to scarlet colored flowers.
Species tulips tend to be low growing and, apart from their leaves, often bear little resemblance to the more commonly seen hybrids.
To ensure strong bulbs from one year to the next, do the following:
Three weeks after tulips bloom, clip off their faded flowers. Flower petals that fall back into the leaves cause the leaves to rot before they have finished making food for next year’s bulbs. Cutting off the flowers also deprives them of the ability to make seeds, an energy-intensive process that will also take away food from next year’s bulbs.
Tip of the week
Since tulips are tasty to rabbits, squirrels and rats, it is recommended that you cage your plants if you have a rodent problem. Plant cages are available from Internet horticultural supply vendors or you may craft a makeshift cage or protective dome from chicken wire. Other low-growing plants that are nibbled by rodents will benefit from cages, too.