The line above from the poem, “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” by Rupert Brooke, often comes back to me when driving around Skagit Valley during the month of April. Tulips don’t wander into pathways or ditches or roadway medians. They stay in perfect rows of luminous color with perfect cup-shaped flowers. Even the newly developed doubles and fringed tulips, with their softer look, stand upright and at attention just as their ancestors have for centuries. And parrot tulips, with their large, nodding heads and deep frills along the edges of their petals, only bend gracefully toward the earth because of the weight of their blossoms. They look like they are either struggling to stand tall and make their ancestors proud or they’re bending in rebellion to shake up the strict profile of their aged species.
Compared to their cousins, other bulbs growing in meadows, orchards, and woods, tulips are an orderly lot. Their cousins are unpredictable whether they advance in a slow, methodical way or explode in a spontaneous, random way. First, come shy winter snowdrops that colonize around fence posts and gather at the bottom of tall pines and fir trees. They will even fill a whole front lawn or the edge of a woods given a few decades of neglect. Then come the daffodils and narcissus growing into large families and running along banks and into fields showing off their colorful hues of yellow and ivory. Narcissus are wonderful in gardens, around the base of mailboxes, fence posts, and orchard trees. They are beautiful even in the rain, the wind, and the fog of late winter. Besides being a reminder of warmer days to come, they make wonderful cut flowers to bring inside when skies are gray and the weather still cold.
And last but not least, are bluebells, beloved flowering bulbs for many but loathed and religiously avoided by the majority of seasoned gardeners. Bluebells are the exact opposite of well-behaved tulips. Having studied the white variety we grow in our white garden, I have come to the conclusion that their ripened seeds must be scattered by mid-summer breezes because they don’t seem to expand from a small group of original bulbs that grows wider and wider over time like the other bulbs. Instead, you will find a new family three feet away from the original clump, and over time they will have spread throughout and found any space available to grow and multiply. Bluebells are the sassy species grown only by gardeners who love to cheer them on. They are resourceful and extremely confident of the beauty they spread during mid-spring. Who wouldn’t love growing a bulb that, planted once, will show its thanks by vaulting over other plants and curbs and pathways to fill in a lonesome space?
So, for those of us who assign personality traits to plants, as I often do, bulbs, in general, are a welcome group. They never sulk in bad weather and their natural instinct to carry on despite all odds is apparent in established gardens where they have faithfully appeared without fanfare for generations. If you would like to see tulips blooming ‘where they are told’ April is the month. They can be observed in acres upon acres of giant fields spreading across our Valley. It is truly a grand parade of well-behaved bulbs. Tulips are nature at her best.