Until the last few years tulips had never really grabbed me. I seem to have rather discounted the shiny flowers in brilliant colours that come and go so spectacularly after the daffodils have made their golden statement. I think the reason is the way they are sold. They are almost always pictured nursery-perfect, as sleek and immaculate goblets just starting to open. Scarcely more than gravid buds, in fact. Dutch nurseries show kilometres of eye-wearying colour. Would you cross the sea just to see a square mile of scarlet? Nor me.
Tulips had their moment in history in 1637, in Charles I’s reign, when immoderate enthusiasm and speculation in ‘broken’ colours caused the first great financial crash, eighty years before our equally dotty South Sea Bubble. It was when tulips and Holland were so much in the news that one of my favourite poets, Andrew Marvell, wrote about a little girl ‘in a Prospect of Flowers’.
Meantime while every verdant thing
Itself does at thy beauty charm
Reform the errors of the spring.
Make that the tulips may have share
Of sweetness, seeing they are fair
And roses of their thorns disarm
But most, procure
That violets may a longer age endure.
‘The errors of the spring’; he sounds like a gardener. ‘Give the tulips some scent ‘, is what he is saying. I always think the same about the camellias; I want to get closer to these lovely nests of petals, to commune with them. I put my nose to them; no response. Today there is at least one scented tulip – and one of the very best: Ballerina, slim, tall, warm orange and smelling of freesias, wallflowers…roses….. I can’t pin it down. But back to their usual image; too prim and buttoned up. Tulips become loveliest when they blow, in post-coital repose, their petals widespread, dishevelled, their stems in wanton curves, scented or not.