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