Tulips: From Wildflower to Cut Flower, Part 3 of 4, France and England

Tulips in France

 Image of Illustration of Tulipa Varie French florists began in earnest to uncover the secrets of the tulip during the 1500’s, as tulips found their way into France at about the same time at Germany, Vienna and the Low Countries. As early at 1606, tulips were illustrated in Pierre Vallet's Florilegium. And in 1623, Vallet's book Le Jardin du Roy Très Chrestien, Loys XIII, Roy de France et de Navare, a pattern book for painters, embroiderers and tapestry weavers, included several illustrations of tulips (photo at left of Tulipa Varie, and Tulipa persica to the right). Tulips first flowered in France in the Provence garden of Fabri de Peires in 1611 (Jacobs, Tulips, p. 3. and Pavord, Tulips) The tulip is the first flower to be given a name, and the French were the first to give tulips “names”. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the tulip was not only a typical occurrence in gardens in France, but the French  Image of Illustration of Tulipa flore vario had engaged in a tulip bulb frenzy just a feverish as did the Dutch two decades later, trading a “single bulb of the modish variety Tulipe Brasserie’ “in 1608 for 30,000 francs. With prices as these for single bulbs, it is no wonder it was reported that tulip fanciers would rush out in the morning and spend the day admiring their tulips, not coming back until bedtime. (Pavord, Tulips, p. 83.) Fashionable French ladies stepped out wearing a posey of tulips, “the flowers worn like jewels in her décolletage, ” and for a time, instead of jewels, as the tulips were their most expensive luxury. (Pavord, Tulips p. 73) The French tulip mania wasn't near as extensive as the Dutch tulipomania, with mainly the aristocracy and wealthier merchants participating.

Other bulbs were equally treasured by the rich. At Louis XIV’s Versailles, tulips, white narcissus and hyacinths were planted in regimens corresponding to ABABAC; A meaning tulips, B equals narcissus and C stands for hyacinths, with hyacinths being the priciest and therefore, rarest, used frugally. (Pavord, Tulips, p. 84.) France was the country of refinement and culture. French customs were imitated not just across Europe, but across the world, even in the rough and common new country of the United States. Formal plantings within boxed hedges suggesting control of nature was to be emulated, a drastic departure from the Turk's garden as a vision of paradise. Even though the aristocracy of France soon went back to wearing jewels and precious metals instead of tulips, the fashion remained for several years in the outlying courts of Europe.

The French terms for tulip types remained in use, that of Rosen, Bizarre and Violetten, Primo Baguets, Baguet Rigauts and Marquetrinen. Eventually, the tulip trade migrated to the Dutch, but the French influence remained, mainly due to the tulip names and texts having been written in the French language. French breeders still continued to grow and cross tulips for new cultivars, but not to the extent of the Dutch or English. The French grower Lombard sold his stock of seedlings to the Flemish growers in 1670, which later became their important "breeder" stock. (Pavord, Tulips, p. 264.)

Paris was an influential city in the tulip trade to buyers across the ocean. Thomas Jefferson, a great statesman and gardener, made it a practice to learn as much about the plants and gardens whenever he was living in England and France. Many of the bulbs Jefferson ordered sent to his estate were “florist” tulips, those improved and refined by decades of breeding.

During the previous two centuries, tulip cultivars "escaped" cultivation and began to flourish in the wild. Whenever I hear of a plant "escaping", my mind immediately conjures up the image of a flower jumping fence and running off into the woods to live by its own wits. Perhaps this is just what happened. Tulipa didieri was first found growing wild in Savoy in 1846. Now on the lookout for more escapees, T. mauriana was spotted in 1858 and T. marjolettii in 1894. Details are sketchy. Obviously, many of them were recaptured and re-introduced to civilized garden society.  By 1883-1884, the Neotulips, (new tulips, most likely cultivars, believed to be naturalized) such as T. didieri, T. mauritiana, T. strangulata, T. maleolens, T. marjolletii were noticed growing wild in locations in France and Italy as well as T. sylvestris and T. clusiana growing wild in Southern and mid Europe. (Jacobs, Tulips, p. 7)

Tulips in Great Britain

In the sixteenth century, French and Flemish emigrants brought along with them their favorite bulbs as they settled in England, or fled religious persecution, or just immigrated for better economic opportunities. By that time Flanders, Belgium was an important center of tulip breeding. From England, tulips moved to Ireland. Similar to mainland Europe, flower and tulip enthusiasts were members of the aristocracy, people with both the time and wealth to indulge. Many had large estates they wished to fill with beautiful and exotic plants. Over centuries, as governments and political systems changed and the plight of the average person improved, tulips trickled down the economy, eventually to the average gardener. (Tulip at the left has a shape somewhat similar to the old English tulip shape.)

John Gerard, physcian, gardener and curator of the physic garden belonging to the College of Physcians mentions in his Herball (1597) that James Garrett, the apothecary, had been growing tulips for 20 years since in his garden at the London Wall. (Pavord, Tulips, p. 93 – 94.) Gerard “divided tulips into three different groups — early, late and mid-season — describing them as Italian, French, timely flowering, late flowering or blush-colored.” The Elizabethan tulip was shorter in stature (under a foot tall), more similar to wild tulips than to the later, larger tulips. This was a time before Linnaeus's system of Botanic Latin. Tulips were described in phrases or sentences, with one ‘Appleblossom Tulip’ described as ‘Tulipa media san guinea albis oris’. (Pavord, Tulips, p. 94) Clusius early work on listing and classifying tulips was a model later used by Linnaeus.

After the fall of the Dutch craze, tulipmania, English florists worked their improvements, English style, becoming an obsession, though not to the extent of the Dutch, with the tulip. Tulips (as well as daffodils and hyacinths) dominated the intricate planting schemes within box hedges throughout the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century. Tulips (and hyacinths, auriculas, anemones, ranuculus) were planted in formal rows and within the spaces in knot gardens and parterres. Tulips were spaced far apart, like jewels twinkling in the sun (tulips as a bedding plant came decades later). English breeders were concerned more with the inside of the tulip, the size, shape and color of the basal blotch and colors of the stamens, the distinctions in texture between the inside and outside of the petals. (Pavord, Tulips, p.110) In one respect, their appreciation followed the Turkish custom in their admiration singly, rather than in masses. English florist preferred petals that were broad and rounded at the top, to the pointed petals of the wild, eastern tulip. Instead of flared pointed petals, a cup shaped look was sought, with white bases preferred to yellow or black.

Alexandrina TulipWith the reign of the Dutch King William and the Stuart Queen Mary in the late seventeenth century, trade between England and the Netherlands increased, however, the English stuck with their preference to the English looking tulip over the Dutch. Interest of the exotic plants native to the New World pushed out interest in tulips and other former favorites, not to different from today's gardening practices. Beds and planting where ripped out in favor of the the newest arrivals from the colonies across the ocean. At the same time as tulips and other European favorites crossed the seas to America with the colonists, Pennsylvania's John Bartram was busy packaging up and shipping subscription boxes of New World flora to the plant and gardening hungry English (and Europeans). The formal knot and parterre plantings were abandoned for glass houses (conservatories) and for the more naturalistic landscapes inspired by Capability Brown. (Pavord, Tulips, p. 117.)

But with the dumping (literally) of the tulip bulbs by the aristocracy, the more common, average gardeners and amateur botanists perpetuated and enriched the legacy of the tulip. Describing themselves as florists, “men who devoted themselves simplemindedly to the culture of a particular flower”, they bred the tulip and gave it its English look we know today. Hundreds of tulip societies sprang up over England with floral shows hotly contested among them, favoring “round, wide-petalled tulips, as close to half spheres as possible.” (Pavord, Tulips, p. 18-19.) Tulips were one of six chief flowers cultivated and bred by florists: aurículas, rannuculus, carnation, anemones, and polyanthus (Pavord, Tulips, p. 17, 100 and
http://hortuscamden.com/essays/view/florists-flowers). Later Pinks, pansies, and hyacinths became common garden favorites.

The English favored a different look in their tulip than the Turks, Flemish or Dutch. English florist tulips, or what became known as cottage tulips (tulips gathered up from cottages around the English countryside, some of these were the tulips “dumped” by the aristocracy) also called May flowering, have pure white and pure yellow bases with cup sized flowers. When the aristocracy’s fancy for the tulip waned and the florists fled the tulip for new world plants, eventually the hobby gardener picked up the slack in its love and breeding. Florist societies sprang up over England, with tulips discussed and shown along with anemones, ranunculus and carnations. Usually meeting at pubs, the group began with tea and progressed on with ale and growing methods and varieties of the top flowers were discussed. Hearty meals often accompanied the gatherings, making the whole experience rather festive and celebratory. (Pavord, Tulips, p 121). Single tulips were displayed in brown beer bottles, a custom that still continues in some societies. Gradually, the meetings evolved to competitions, rather than just showing flowers.

Qualities of a good tulip varied with the centuries, country and culture. One example of characteristics of a good tulip is found in a later edition of Philip Miller's, Gardener's Dictionary in 1732:

“The properties of a good tulip, are according to the characteristics of the best Florists of the present age.

  1. It should have a tall, strong stem.
  2. The Flower should consist of six leaves, three within and three without; the former ought to be larger than the latter.
  3. Their Bottom should be proportioned to their Top, and their upper part should be rounded off, and not terminate in a Point.
  4. These Leaves, when opened, should neither turn inward nor bend outward, but rather stand erect, and the Flower should be of a middling size, neither over large nor too small.Rose Brillanti Tulip - an extinct English Florists tulip.
  5. The stripes should be small and regular arising quite from the Bottom of the Flower; for if ther are any Remains of the former self coloured Bottom, the Flower is in danger of losing its stripes again. The Chives should not be yellow, but of a brown Colour. When a Flower has all these Properties, it is esteemed a good one.” (Jacobs, Tulips, p.55)

It was Philip Miller who discovered that insects were agents in pollination: "Miller removed the pollen from half of his flowering tulips in order to investigate if they would still produce fertile seeds. Two days later he saw bees 'working on Tulips' which he had left untouched. When the bees emerged from the flowerheads, their bodies and legs were dusted in golden pollen, which, as Miller observed with astonishment, they offlanded in the tulips from which he had removed the stamen." From this experiment, Miller could explain how many plants growing in hot house nurseries or conservatories failed to reproduce. (Wulf, The Brother Gardeners, p. 39.)

For a period of time, there is little mention of tulips in works of English horticulture, perhaps due to economic conditions. “Then there was a long interregnum, and if we are to trust old works on horticulture, species of Tulipa must have become practically unknown to British gardens, for Miller (1732) does not allude to them in this Dictionary, nor Maddock (1792) in his Florist’s Dictionary, nor Loudon in his monumental Encyclopedia in 1822.” To give support of this, works in the early nineteenth century refer to the re-introduction of T. clusiana into French gardens. (Jacobs, Tulips. Note: this doesn't quite square with the other quotes from Miller's Dictionary about tulips mentioned above.) In 1912, the Rev. Joseph Jacobs published the first book on Tulips written in the English language, about "present day gardening in England" and its practices and many cultivar names, including brief historical notes on the tulip.

Lord Collingwood Tulip - an extinct English Florists tulip.During the nineteenth century, the Flemish were still considered in the tulip business, producing long strong stemmed and “chunky, squarish flowers,” called baguettes, a French term (Pavord, Tulips, p. 183). Primo baguettes are very tall, with handsome cups and white bottoms, well broken with fine brown, and all from the same breeder. Rigaut baugette, not quite as tall as the baguette primos, have strong stems, very large well formed cups, said to be able to hold a pint of wine, with with bases, broken with rich brown color. The Darwin tulips, also known as breeder tulips, are derived from the baguettes. Please recall, these now Flemish tulips were from the stock of seedlings Lombard (the Frenchman) sold to the Flemish in 1670.

Breeders of tulips in Belgium one by one went out of business, similar to England, though it was believed that English and Flemish breeders were superior to Dutch. But it was noted by all that the Dutch were better salesmen. By 1885, the 300 year Flemish tulip industry came to an end with the sale of Jules Lenglart’s stock of 200 different breeders and 800 different varieties of broken tulips, 10,000 bulbs in all to E. H. Krelage in Haarlem. From this stock, Krelage choose only the best of the Breeders, mostly pinks and purples (he excluded all yellows), casting aside the fabulous and cherished broken tulips. He re-branded and marketed these Breeders as the Darwin tulips in 1899, now classified as Division 5 tulips, the Single Lates (not to be confused with the Darwin Hybrids). The Darwin tulips were named after Charles Darwin; Mr. Krelage obtained permission from his son Francis. Part of Mr. Krelage’s marketing included mass bedding out schemes abroad at trade and florist shows, as well as international exhibitions, botanic gardens and in public places (at no charge). The Darwin tulips and bedding out style had their critics, but each year Dutch trade grew.

Bedding out with tulips grew, I am sure in part, because these new Darwin tulips could be lifted and transplanted as soon as the petals have fallen off. “If care is taken to get up the roots without breaking and not to damage the leaves, the plants hardly suffer at all from the operation. Any open, unused bit of ground will do to receive the bulbs until the foliage has died down, when the ordinary routine of lifting and storing may be carried out.” (Jacobs, Tulips, p. 40). When lifting and transplanting the tulips, care should also be made in not damaging the eaves, and replanting them in a shady area. One reason for the lifting and storing of bulbs in England and Northern Europe, was, I'm sure, to prevent them from dying of rot during the summer months.

European growers and gardeners went to a great deal of trouble to grow the new cultivars and hybrids, with little mention of growing species tulips. Wild tulips require a good baking and prefer a dry summer, which made growing species tulips difficult in Great Britain and Northern Europe. Jacobs notes in Tulips: “the sudden flowering of tulips in my own churchyard at Whitewell this last spring, after the hot summer of 1911, may have some bearing upon their curious behavior. These must have been there upwards of ten years; and until now have practically been without a flower since the year or two after they were first planted.” He goes on to surmise they are not well adapted to beds —I will Fig. 21 from the Report of the Tulip Nomenclature Committee, 1914-15: Darwisn Tulip – Clara Butt.here add he gardened in England, far from their native hot, sunny and dry environment.

At about the same time as Krelage was promoting the Darwin tulips across the Channel, in England, Peter Barr, of Mssrs. Barr and Son watched the Dutch and followed suite. Barr went around England buying up all the cottage tulips, as they were now known, concentrating on the plain colored “breeder” tulips, rather than the previously sought after flamed, feathered, broken tulips. These cottage tulips were a stronger, better stock, as the others were considered aristocratic, and needed to be “cosseted, covered, protected from harm.” But the Dutch Darwin tulips were better suited to the new trend of mass bedding, with their longer and stronger stems, and larger cup, where as the English Florist’s tulips were valued for it’s inner beauty, better appreciated individually, and close up.

References -- listed at the end of Part 4.

For Part 4, Tulips in America, and the Dutch BulbMasters, click here.

Angie Hanna, April 8, 2014