Friday, November 18, 2011

Out of the East

Tulipa biflora bulbs

These small bulbs of Tulipa biflora, a species native to the Southern Balkans and Southeastern Russia, are to be planted today in Cuxa garden, the only one of our three gardens in which  post-medieval plants are grown. The tulip did not reach Europe until the sixteenth century.  Photograph by D. Larkin

Tulips, spring-blooming crocuses, winter aconites, fritillarias, and other bulbous plants native to Asia came too late to Europe to find a home in the medieval plant collections in Bonnefont and Trie gardens, but they do have an honored place in Cuxa cloister garden. Cuxa has been the main ornamental garden for the Museum since 1938, and has always included both modern and medieval plants in order to provide a continuous display from early spring until late fall.

A number of choice species tulips, or “botanical tulips,” as they are sometimes called, are planted each fall for spring bloom. We have grown Tulipa biflora, (see image); T. turkestanica (see image); and T. saxatilis (see image) in Cuxa garden for several years. These short-stemmed plants with their beautiful, wide-cupped flowers are more rarely seen than the hundreds of named varieties of cultivated tulip forms now available to gardeners, and seem especially well suited to the borders of this small, enclosed garden. Although these tulips are wild forms, the bulbs have not been gathered from the wild. They have been imported from Holland, where they were commercially propagated.

Not all of these species tulips have been given modern names, as they are not as economically important as the cultivated tulips. Some retain the same kind of Latin descriptive tags they bore during the Renaissance, before the system of binomial nomenclature that we use today was developed by the great eighteenth-century botanist Carolus Linnaeus. One such example is Tulipa humilis alba coerulea oculata (”the low-growing white tulip with the blue eye”) (see image), which we are planting in the garden for the first time this year.

—Deirdre Larkin

For Further Reading

The following publications investigate the introduction of the tulip into Europe, and the subsequent tulipomania. Anna Pavord’s compendium includes a chapter on species tulips.

Dash, Mike. Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions it Aroused. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999

Pavord, Anna. The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad. New York and London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999

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