On a cold day in February, not so long ago, my daughter nudged me in the grocery store and pointed her gloved fingers at the profusion of color brightening up an otherwise quiet corner stocked with root vegetables and canned soup.
“Look, Mom, tulips!” she cried. My face instinctively broke into a smile as I grabbed one of the cellophane-wrapped bunches and lovingly placed it in my cart.
Tulips! She knows my weakness for this particular flower. Strong stems, strappy leaves, waxy petals, brilliant, glossy color. My favorite cut flower bar none. However, there was a time when I did not embrace these fleeting, aristocratic blooms—and for good reason. In the garden, Tulipa gesneriana moved in the upper echelons of the bulb world, maintaining a strong sense of superiority over her spring cousins. Not content to naturalize or bloom annually like the lowly crocus or humble daffodil, she required much more from the beleaguered gardener—and I wasn’t willing to provide it.
For the most part, a tulip left in place returns weaker in subsequent years, until nothing remains but a slip of strappy leaf, a nuisance growth to be dug and discarded. Given a choice, I’d have taken a daffodil any day over the bulb world’s version of a temperamental poet dying slowing and romantically from consumption—handsome, admittedly; sexy, certainly—but way too much work. As cut flowers, I found them difficult. They often sported more foliage than flowers. They had an irritating way of flopping over after a few days, dropping their petals one by one on the wide planks of my kitchen table. “Give me a spray of lilies,” said I, “a pert little gerbera—a resilient head of hydrangea!” In short, I was not a tulip lover.
Then, things changed—quite literally overnight. It was seven o’clock on the Friday evening before Easter weekend, many years ago. I was walking to my train station on grey London streets, the promise of a long weekend in front of me. At the corner of an alleyway just before the station entrance, a flower-seller was packing up her stand. She motioned for me to come closer to the half-empty white buckets and vacant green benches.
“’Ere luv,” she barked in a sharp Cockney voice, and thrust an extra large bunch of purple and white tulips at me.
I shook my head slightly and replied quite truthfully, “I haven’t any cash, sorry.”
She shook her head in return. “No, luv, I mean take ’em—I’m closin’ up.”
I stammered again about not having any cash to give her, but she shook her head decisively, wrapped the flowers in white, wax-lined paper, and put them in my hands.
“’Appy Easter to yer!” she called as I turned the corner, bewildered, and made my way towards a train to take me home, grasping a large bouquet of Peace on Earth in my gloved hands.
Perhaps you are not surprised by this gesture, but then perhaps you have never lived in a country where you had to pay 10p for a packet of ketchup to go with your McDonald’s hamburger. To be given an expensive bunch of flowers by a total stranger was extraordinary, trust me. Those lovely messengers of goodwill sat quietly on my table for the next week, encouraging me with each glance to be kinder to others, and in unexpected ways. Forever after, I have considered the tulip worthy of my time and effort.
And so now I buy tulips. More importantly, I grow tulips. I consider them annuals in my garden, and when they do come back the next year I am pleasantly surprised. When the foliage-to-flower ratio starts to climb, I dig them, and as I don’t have room to send them to the equivalent of a clinic in Switzerland, I give them to someone who does. Furthermore, putting a few species tulips in over the last few years has enhanced my love affair, allowing me delicate blooms year after year without any further nursing on my part.
I am notoriously terrible at cutting flowers from my garden to bring indoors, but with my tulips I make an exception. A vase of tulips sitting on my kitchen table is a simple, beautiful symbol of human nature at its best—a reminder to cut a few stems for a friend, or even to give a bouquet to a complete stranger. For who can foresee the traditions established in the life of another human being through a random act of kindness? ❖
This article was published originally in 2015, in GreenPrints Issue #101.