One thing says spring: flamboyant tulips

Forced into bloom, bulbs offer hope to the winter-weary

February 16, 2003|By Denise Cowie | By Denise Cowie,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Dispirited by the frigid temperatures?

Desperate for spring? Try this antidote to the winter blues: tulips.

Check out almost any florist, garden center or even supermarket right now, and you're likely to see these cheerful blossoms in cut-flower bouquets or growing in pots. January through April is prime season for such potted bulbs as tulips, hyacinths and daffodils, which are forced into bloom early to please the winter-weary.

It's easy to see their appeal. Just look out a window anywhere there's a pot of colorful tulips sitting on the sill.

"You see a breath of spring with snow behind it," says bulb grower Casey Jansen of Holland Greenhouses in Monroe Town-ship, N.J. "Isn't that a lovely sight?"

Lots of us think so, apparently. Within the last few weeks, Jansen's company shipped a million potted bulbs to East Coast retailers.

The company begins the growing process in late September and early October at acres of greenhouses, and begins the selling season in winter. But every year, sales increase at this time, says Jansen's son, Casey Jansen Jr.

"This is when bulbs first come into flower, when you do special treatments," he says. "It's only at a certain time of year you can have this flower. ... You can always have a mum. Bulbs, you cannot."

Burst of color

And tulips are the top sellers, ahead of hyacinths and daffodils. Why?

Daffodils may be almost synonymous with yellow (though there are other colors), but tulips come in every Easter-egg hue you can imagine.

"Tulips sell so well because they are colorful," says Jansen.

They're quirky, too. Espe- cially as cut flowers.

"They keep growing -- they can grow up to an inch in the vase," says Sally Ferguson at the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. This is not normal behavior for cut flowers.

"The other fun thing about tulips is that they dance," she says. "They turn toward the light, they grow, and they have heavy heads in relationship to their stems. So as they dip in response to gravity and turn to the light, the flowers seem to dance in the bowl. If you realize that this is what tulips do, it's charming -- it's something that floral designers treasure."

But if you insist on having your tulips stand up straight like soldiers, you can force them to toe the line, at least for a while. Take the bunch of flowers and gently wrap it in newspaper at an angle, starting at one corner, then stand it upright in a bucket of water for a few hours.

The paper should wrap the flower heads in darkness but not be in the water. Since the flowers are deprived of light and supported by the paper, their stems will gradually straighten. Once they're released to the vase, however, they'll start to follow their own muse again.

Of course, you could always lop off their limbs and confine them.

Tulip trickery

You can get a jump on spring with pots of bulbs forced into early flower. Gardeners who are really well organized probably thought about this in early fall, and planted up their own pots of bulbs so they'd have winter blossoms indoors. Most of us, however, will settle for what the garden center has to offer. Just place the plastic nursery pot inside your own decorative cachepot.

"For a particularly lush look indoors, create stage settings that show off multiple uses of the same kind of flower," Ferguson says. Place a broad basket filled with pots of bright pink hyacinths on the floor by an entryway, for example, then use similar hyacinths nearby in a variety of vases of different styles and heights. "The repetition is fun and unexpected."

If you want to place pots on an outdoor bench, wait a while. "They won't grow in the weather now," says Fergu-son. "You could probably do this [outdoors] at the end of March, so they bloom through into April."

Tulips are tough and can withstand quite a bit of cold.

You can even take a cue from professional designers and plant pots of about-to-flower bulbs directly into your garden.

For special occasions, Fergu-son says, she occasionally has planted potted bulbs in a protected stoop garden, so that they were in bloom two months ahead of their normal schedule.

"People thought I was just a marvelous gardener," she says, laughing.

Tips on Tulips

When buying potted tulips -- or hyacinths, daffodils, or any other spring bulb -- choose plants with buds that are formed but not fully open. Water enough to keep soil moist, but not soggy.

For cut flowers, buy tulips when buds are still closed but showing a little color. Recut the stems on an angle with a clean, sharp knife to maximize water uptake, then arrange them in a vase of cool water. Tulips are big drinkers, so add water daily and change it every few days. No flower food is necessary.

Do not put cut tulips in the same container with daffodils, as narcissus exudes a slimy substance that shortens the life of other flowers.

For more information on spring-blooming bulbs, visit

-- Knight Ridder / Tribune

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