Washington state's tulips are a major farm crop and a tourist attraction

March 19, 1995|By Katherine Calos | Katherine Calos,Richmond Times-Dispatch

Tulips like these deserve more than a tiptoe. They deserve some grand and glorious musical gesture; a rhapsody in red, yellow, purple and pink.

They deserve a rollicking march as they parade in row after row of magnificent color toward a crescendo of mountains at the horizon.

They deserve an audience, and this they definitely have. During the two weeks of Washington state's annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, an estimated half-million visitors traipse through the valley's 700 acres of tulips in bloom. This year's dates are from March 31 to April 16.

Tulips are big business in northwestern Washington's Skagit Valley. Beyond their appeal to tourists, tulips are the heart of the farming industry here. Washington Bulb Co. is the largest grower of tulips, daffodils and irises in the United States and possibly the world. Its fields grow about 90 percent of the Skagit Valley bulb crop.

"There are 5,000 growers in Holland, but none that grow to the size, the scale, that we do," says Bernadette Roozen Miller, daughter of the founder.

"We farm about 3,000 acres, but bulbs have to be rotated. They can only be put in the same spot once every five years. So we have 1,200 in bulb crops, the rest in rotator crops and nine acres under glass."

Ms. Miller is general manager of Roozengaarde, the bulb company's retail division that's named after her family's homestead in Holland. She oversees a display garden, shop and catalog sales.

"The Roozen family has been growing bulbs since the late 1700s in Holland," she says. "It's a big name in the bulb industry in Holland."

Bill Roozen came to the United States during World War II as a salesman for Dutch flower bulbs. After the war he returned to stay, but he wasn't satisfied in the Northeast.

"A man in the bulb industry in New York said, 'I'm going to take you to a place you'll love,' " Ms. Miller says, and that place was the Skagit Valley. "Six months later he married my mother and came here.

"He felt very sure that this exact location of the Skagit Valley -- due to maritime breezes, temperatures and soil -- would be a very good place for tulips. As it turned out, it absolutely is."

Mr. Roozen wasn't the first to plant bulbs in this corner of Washington. That distinction goes to Mary Brown Stewart, who planted them after World War I.

"I don't think it took off," Ms. Miller says. "It's a specialized industry. It isn't like throwing down some carrot seed. But she's the one that got people thinking about it. That's for sure."

When Mr. Roozen arrived, it took him a while to get into business. "He came with nothing," Ms. Miller says. "He shoveled coal and did whatever he could during those years.

"Finally in 1955, they had saved enough for him to buy a small parcel of land with a barn. That was the Washington Bulb Farm in those days. The rest is history."

About 20 farms were growing bulbs when Mr. Roozen started, she says. Now there are only three besides Washington Bulb: West Shore Acres, Skagit Valley Bulb Farms and LeFeber Bulb and Turf Farm.

At West Shore Acres, there's a tie to Virginia in the Flower Carpet daffodils labeled Brent. They came from Brent Heath, owner of the Daffodil Mart in Gloucester, Va.

John Gardner, whose family has farmed West Shore Acres since the early 1900s, was in the market for Flower Carpet 15 years ago when he heard that Mr. Heath was getting out of the cut-flower business and had bulbs to sell.

"I was able to pick up his excess Flower Carpet," Mr. Gardner said. "I called that particular strain Brent. I got 2,000 pounds from him, which is around 14,000 or 15,000 bulbs. We've got about 160 tons now." Mr. Gardner labeled the Virginia bulbs separately because he was pleased with their quality.

West Shore Acres began its bulb business with help from Sam Stewart, son of the area's first bulb grower. "We were mainly dairy cows and cabbage seed" when Mr. Stewart broached the idea, Mr. Gardner says. "I fished in Alaska at that time, salmon fishing. He said, you keep fishing and I'll get you going in daffodils. This got so big I had to quit that up there and concentrate on my flower business."

The land is good for daffodils because it gets a lot of rain and is cool in the spring, Mr. Gardner says.

Mr. Gardner grows about 130 acres of daffodils and 25 acres of tulips, both for cut flowers. A lot of the daffodils go to the American Cancer Society, which sells them each year as a fund-raiser.

Daffodils are among the 75,000 bulbs in the display garden at West Shore Acres, though tulips steal the show in April. The garden surrounds the family's 1886 Victorian home at a picturesque spot beside the Swinomish Channel. A picnic table on a dike overlooks the water. At low tide, there's a narrow beach.

Fanciful blooms labeled in the garden include Aladdin, red with exotic spikes; Fancy Frills, white-striped pink bordered with fringe; Oratorio, red tulips that look like rosebuds unfolding; and West Point, whose yellow spikes stand at attention.

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