The following appeared in The Southern California Gardener in 1996; an abbreviated version appeared in September 2002 in the Silver Lake Press.


Callow youth. To think I had the occasion, back in '71, to hike up the slopes of Mt. Ida in Crete and possibly witness a stand of Tulipa saxatilis in its native habitat. But in those days all I knew -- or cared -- about plants was that the ouzo that gave me the kick for dancing was laced with the taste of anise.
It was another fourteen years before I dipped into a bin of bulbs in a nursery and brought T. saxatilis into my home and heart. Given its roots, I knew it'd be a better choice for my Los Angeles garden than tulips reared in Holland. And then it had such good press, going all the way back to 1606 when Carolus Clusius, world's first and foremost tulip groupie, wrote a correspondent about the `Tulip of Candie,' or Crete.
Maybe my tulipa didn't read its reviews. The bulbs failed to flower the first year, and they bombed again the next. After their third year in the ground without the slightest sign of a bud, I thundered at the things: shape up or ship out.
As fate would have it, they began blooming the following spring and have been blooming ever since.
And what a bloom: an exquisite combination of pale lilac petals blotched with lemon yellow at the base, plus showy dark anthers for contrast. And for those who think species plants produce blooms on the twee side, T. saxatilis gives cause to reassess. Each urn-shaped flower opens nearly flat during the day to 2"-3" across, and mature bulbs carry up to seven of these blooms on long pedicels branched off the ten-inch stem.
That this is not your ordinary tulip is also clear from its usual means of reproduction, by stolons.
T. saxatilis is a triploid species (probably derived from T. cretica or T. Bakeri), with three times the basic chromosome number, so it rarely if ever reproduces from seed. To expand its range, the bulb puts out horizontal stolons up to a foot or more underground, forming offsets at the tail end. Mention `underground stolon' to a gardener and you're likely to get a gasp, but I've had no trouble containing its habit. I just yank out the new bulbs that appear where I don't want them. Still, knowing how easily love can turn to hate, cautious gardeners might want to confine the wandering stolons with galvanized sheet metal or a border of slate. This should also help speed up the blooming process, since it turns out T. saxatilis only blooms when it's crowded.
And here I thought it was hand of Zeus.
The best time to plant the tulip is in the fall; the best site is one in full sun with sharp drainage. My bulbs thrive in a particularly hot spot, one which has previously fried other less- adapted tenants. Foliage appears early compared to other bulbs in my garden, and the broad, arching leaves are a welcome prelude to bloom, their texture a remarkable combination of lustrous and crisp. For cheap thrills, I pass my hand over them as I make my garden rounds and listen to them crackle.
It's generally February when the flower show starts, and for three weeks or so it's the essence of spring. Although I've read that the blooms are supposed to have a scent, it's eluded me. Perhaps if I issued another ultimatum? But of course it would have no teeth. My Tulipa is too beautiful to bannish. Too healthy. Too generous. My T. sexappealis.
In my garden, it's also pest-free. True, early in the season earwigs tend to gather in the hollow of the foliage, but they've never damaged the bud forming there. Plus this arrangement can be tweaked to the gardener's advantage. With a little pressure of the thumb and forefinger applied to the foliage, the tulipa makes an ingenious earwig death trap.
Even in its waning days, T. saxatilis is a model of good grace. While foliage of other bulbs turns brown and withers after bloom -- tempting some gardeners to `tidy up' before the bulb has stored enough energy for the following year's bloom -- the foliage of this tulip turns cream and pinkish soon after bloom, and its stems an attractive crimson.
That's about it in the cultivation department. T. saxatilis is so well adapted to the Southern California climate that I just let it be. In theory, the bulbs should not be watered much during the dry season, but mine have, without suffering a whit. I admit I have excellent drainage; I may not live on the slopes of Mt. Ida, but I do live on a cliff. Thank goodness I don't live in England, where apparently devotees of T. saxatilis are willing to lift the bulbs each year and keep them next to the glass of an unheated greenhouse in order to assure their summer baking.
A cute twist on the equally perverse habit of some Californians: growing Dutch-raised tulips and putting them in the ice box to assure their winter chill.
For companion plants in the garden, you can't do better than other Mediterranean bulbs and subshrubs. I associate my stand of tulipa with daffodils, Pancratium maritimum and Urginea maritima, plus Tunica saxifraga and Helichrysum species. What I ought to do, I know, is grow anise nearby (another Greek native, Pimpinella anisum) and distill my own anisette. Yes, that would be illegal. I'd have to go deep underground. Still, it's an appealing scenario, drinking a toast to my Tulipa saxatilis with a glass of homemade ouzo. Perhaps I'd even do a little dance to living and gardening in a Mediterranean climate.
Just call me Zorba.
And pass the liniment.


(c) copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.