The Tulips Are Too Early

May 5, 2019

But if you miss the Tulip Festival then we got your flowers right here, plus some history

Every year the City of Albany plants a whole lot of tulips all over the City, over 100,000 this year according to the the City website. They are timed to open up and bloom the weekend of the Tulip Festival in Washington Park, which always happens Mother’s Day weekend in May.  This is always a big deal, a commemoration of the founding of the City back in the early 1600s by the Dutch. It’s the perfect place to take your mama on her day to walk around so she can see the tulips after brunch.

However, this year we have a crisis.  A week before the festival the majority of the tulips have decided to reach their peak blossom.  It’s shaping up to be a disaster.  Imagine nudging your poor old mama past the Italian sausage vendors and out of range of the loud musical acts, only to find sad, desiccated, played out tulips, their already browning petals lying in the dirt.  How can you do that to her.

Well fear not brave offspring, this blog is here for you.  I went over to Washington Park with my camera and took photos of those tulips before they went the way of all flowers, shedding their visual delights and going to seed like they desperately want to do. Right here are photos of the tulips that next week you can show the old lady and say to her, See, this is what you missed.

Kelly Triumph Tulip Kelly Triumph Tulip

A fair number of other people appear to have had the same idea I had on Saturday afternoon, see the tulips while they were still fresh and pretty.  There were, of course, nowhere near the crowds that show up for the festival, which made it easy to get decent shots of the flowers without getting pushed aside and without blocking posed pictures every time I turned around.  Still, I did manage to get in the way a few times and had to wait for people to move.  But no big deal, everyone was pleasant and relaxed.

Because that’s the thing you do with the tulips, you take endless photos of your boyfriend or girlfriend or family posing with the flowers.  Or if you are by yourself, like I was, you go from flower bed to flower bed, leaning over the tulips with your picture taking device setting up perfect shots like you are a professional employed by a magazine.  Most people use their phones, but I saw a fair number of honking big cameras with foot long lenses and every size camera in between the two.  

Gotta Get It Just Right Gotta Get It Just Right

Perhaps I could laugh and sneer at all these people that are so seriously archiving these flowers …um, just like I was doing, but it is plain to see that these photographers are mostly visitors to the City, tourists who don’t usually see such things as this.  People who don’t live here all too often proclaim their disdain for my City but readily show up to take advantage of unique amenities that we have like this.  That annoys me a lot.  But I suppose we need to have such things for tourists to enjoy.

Moses Gestures Above Yellow Foxy Foxtrot Double Earlies and Red American Dream Darwin Hybrids` Moses Gestures Above Yellow Foxy Foxtrot Double Earlies and Red American Dream Darwin Hybrids`

The flower beds are arranged around the statue of Moses, I moved clockwise around him systematically taking pictures.  Each bed has a clean, easy to read placard stating the names of the flowers in the bed with identifying photos.  A lady taking her own solo photos saw me taking photos of the placards to remember the names, she proclaimed it a good idea and started doing it herself.

Placard For Flower Power Parrot Placard For Flower Power Parrot

The wild tulip, a member of the lily family, originally comes from the Steppes and hills of Central Asia, where the appearance of the bright flowers popping up from among the rocks was seen as a welcome harbinger of spring in the dry and colorless landscape at the end of winter.  This is a different flower than the domesticated varieties we see, the wild flowers all have solid colors and are pointed, not quite opening.  No one knows for sure, but the name is thought to be derived from the Persian word for turban, which the wild flowers resembled. 

After the Ottoman Turks finished conquering the Greek (Eastern Roman) Empire in the year 1453, they imported the tulip and took to it in a big way, cultivating it and producing the first lavish domesticated flowers we see today. Big badass warriors such as Mehmet the Conquerer regularly wore an image of a tulip or of tulips when they went into battle. The Ottoman emperors held the very first tulip festivals, lavish affairs that lasted for days and were usually in honor of a favored son or daughter’s wedding.

Ballade Lily Shaped Tulip Ballade Lily Shaped Tulip

As the Ottoman Empire expanded across the Middle East, North Africa and deep into the heart of Europe in the 1500s and 1600s, the Western European nations sent ambassadors and merchants to the capital Constantinople (actually already called Istanbul, a Greek derived word meaning “the big City”) to propose trading partnerships.  These visitors were struck by the proliferation of unusual but beautiful flowers called tulips that seemed to be growing everywhere in well maintained plots, which in itself was an innovation to their eyes.

The visitors brought the first bulbs to Western Europe in the latter part of the 1500s, and the flowers finally reached the Netherlands in the early 1600s, right about when the Dutch Revolution was overthrowing rule of their country by Spain. Independence immediately led to a tremendous economic explosion for the Netherlands, this is the time when explorations led to the founding of Fort Orange in 1624 in what is today the South End of Albany, and this is the time when tulips were most valuable and coveted by the Dutch.  That’s the basis for the tulip connection between the City of Albany and the Netherlands.

City Of Vancouver Single Late Tulips City Of Vancouver Single Late Tulips

The first tulip festival in Albany was held May 14, 1949.  The story goes that the year before then mayor Erastus Corning III asked Queen Wilhelmina of Holland to choose a variety of tulip and dedicate it to Albany.  She chose Orange Wonder which has orange petals and scarlet in the center inside, designating it “the official flower of Albany.”  But I could not find any Orange Wonders growing around Moses, perhaps I missed it but no, I did a full circle and I think I visited every bed.

This is a scandal.  Where are the Orange Wonders?  I plan to make an issue out of this and demand that they be found, purchased and planted next year.  I’m sure old Erastus and Queen Willie are much displeased wherever they are right now, underworld or whatnot, their special tulip neglected and forgotten by the present City leaders.

Red And Yellow Banja Luka Darwin Hybrids with Akebono Single Late Tulips, Kingsblood Single Lates Just Starting To Bloom Red And Yellow Banja Luka Darwin Hybrids with Akebono Single Late Tulips, Kingsblood Single Lates Just Starting To Bloom

There was very little attempt made to create designs other than alternating varieties in diagonals on long beds.  Around ten years ago we had a City Gardener who made astonishing designs with the flowers such as animal shapes and flags.  That would be nice to see again but really, it’s not necessary.

Fancy Frills Fringed Fancy Frills Fringed

Another thing done in years past was the practice of packing ice around the tulips during overly warm weather before the festival to delay the blooms.  No idea if this was effective, a few years ago the current City Gardener told the local media that the practice was “misguided” because the melting ice would just create a mess.  Apparently all one can do, she says, is be anxious and “pray a lot.”

Unopened Flaming Parrots And Givenchy Double Late Tulips Unopened Flaming Parrots And Givenchy Double Late Tulips

The gardeners do stagger some of the plantings.  So while most of the flowers open at once, a significant number bloom later than the rest.  I did find that not all the tulips had matured yet, a fair number have yet to open. So next week your poor sweet old mama will get to see at least some fresh and delightful tulips.

Blue Jacket Hyacinth Blue Jacket Hyacinth

There are several varieties of hyacinth planted with the tulips, they seem to go well together.  One variety, muscaria, resembles the native blue lupine of the Pine Bush, which is the favorite food and breeding ground of the endangered karner blue butterflies. These are usually placed at the ends of tulip beds like welcome mats.

But of course, despite the superficial resemblance, hyacinth and lupine are not related.  Lupine, which is derived from the latin word for wolf, bloom from the bottom up and grow from seeds.  Hyacinth, which are related to asparagus, put out a stalk that opens all at once.  Like tulips they are grown from bulbs, so for the gardener they go together. 

Muscari Armeniacum Hyacinth Muscari Armeniacum Hyacinth

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
-Yet when we came back, late, from the garden,
Your arms full, your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Accent Daffodil Accent Daffodil

Ah, what would Spring be without daffodils?  There are a few beds of them plus some scattered around.  They don’t attract attention like the flashy tulips but they are nice to see.

Double Beauty Of Appledorn Double Beauty Of Appledorn

Gladly, I did not see any evidence of the tulip breaking virus, sometimes incorrectly called mosaic virus.  It causes spectacular streaks of color in the flowers, visuals that long ago made infected bulbs highly prized and valuable.  Unfortunately it also stunts the growth of the plants and the flower tops, and makes them more fragile.  And there is no treatment for it, infected plants and bulbs must be isolated and destroyed to prevent spread.

Makes me wonder what would happen if the breaking virus was found in Washington Park, would all the tulips have to be dug up and destroyed by specialists in HAZMAT suits?  Would there be soil remediation measures?  Would the Tulip Festival have to be cancelled, perhaps indefinitely, because of the threat of lingering plant disease?  The virus is almost unheard of today, just what are the procedures for handling an outbreak?

Orca Double Early Orca Double Early

Starting around the year 1634, the time when our community then called Beverwick was being settled, there was a major financial speculation bubble over tulips back in the Netherlands, generally considered the first significant bubble. Today it’s called the Tulip Mania. In the backrooms of taverns, rare and beautiful tulips sold and resold for ridiculously fabulous prices.  It got more absurd when traders started selling shares in single bulbs and soon also futures, that is, bets that the price of a particular bulb would go up or down when it was planted and finally bloomed.

That’s right, tulips were right there at the birth of modern Capitalism.  And like all speculative bubbles it crashed and left a bunch of investors in debt, although reports that it crashed the Dutch economy are greatly exaggerated.   According to an account in Tulipomania by Mike Dash, a history of that financial bubble, the Dutch government eventually stepped in and mitigated the financial losses of most investors, many of which at the end of the mania were tradesmen and even laborers rather than the wealthy.

Legendary Semper Augustus Tulip, Illustration From The 1630s Legendary Semper Augustus Tulip, Illustration From The 1630s

The breaking virus, which was not at all understood at the time, actually drove up the prices of affected bulbs during the Dutch Tulip Mania.  The most expensive was the Semper Augustus, a single bulb of which cost as much as a well-appointed house during a time when housing prices were high.  It was runty and sickly from the virus, but the petals sported lavish fiery streaks. Perhaps thankfully, this beautifully diseased variety is extinct.

Some accounts say the tulip plant did not arrive in North America until the 1800s, but that can’t be true.  Did the settlers of early Beverwick get involved in the tulip speculation that was raging back home in the Netherlands? Even if no bulbs were carried to the new colony in the 1630s, surely some of the settlers were caught up at a distance in the frenzy, and perhaps some of the mania took place here too.

Yellow Fritilliaria Crown Imperial Yellow Fritilliaria Crown Imperial

Here and there were some of these Frittiliaria, a kind of lily related to tulips, also from Central Asia.  They look interesting, but they smell “foxy,” which has been described as “unfloral” and “putrid, sulfuric, sweaty.”  Which explains why there are only a few here and there.  They function as a natural protection for the other flowers, the smell is said to keep away predators, particularly moles and deer. They look pretty though.

Finally, we have several of these convenient frames for photos.  I squinted at these and kept trying to figure out exactly how this is supposed to work but finally I realized, it’s a joke son.  I saw several groups of people happily play around with the frames and take pictures of each other with Moses and all the flowers behind them.  Okay, that’s the idea. During the Tulip Festival take a photo of your mama in the frame.  It’s all supposed to be fun.

In Case Your Camera Has No Context In Case Your Camera Has No Context