On the plus side, like most bulbs, they are simple to grow: just dig a hole, pop them in and wait for six months. Even the poet Rupert Brooke, whose gardening expertise was otherwise tentative ('And in my flower beds, I think/Smile the carnation and the pink'), noticed that in Germany, 'tulips bloom as they are told'.
Offsetting that obedience are a number of minuses. The flowers are often ungainly, with heads too heavy for their stems, giving them a hangdog droop. After flowering they look a terrible mess, their leaves randomly prostrate.
Worst of all, they mostly come in those garish, psychedelic shades that, while appreciated by municipal garden designers, offend those whose taste is for the pale, subtle colours that have been the height of horticultural fashion for more than a decade. Not to put too fine a point on it, they are a bit vulgar.
It was not always thus and the Dutch, who dominate the international tulip market, have spent the past year trying to restore the flower's image. In case you have not noticed, we have been living through 'Tulip 400', a celebration of the flower's 400th anniversary aimed at rediscovering some of the glamour once attached to it.
It is a phoney event, but only slightly. What happened in 1594 was that the botanist Carolus Clusius grew the first tulips in Holland, having planted them the previous autumn at the Botanical Garden in Leiden. But they had arrived in Europe some 50 years earlier, when the Austrian ambassador to Turkey - where they originated - sent a batch home to Vienna. The first record of them being grown in England is in 1577.
The name derives from tulband, Turkish for a Persian turban, which the flowers were thought to resemble. Early English botanists suggested new names that never caught on, among them 'lillynarcissus' and 'Dalmatian cap'; either would have posed a formidable challenge to later writers of popular songs.
Yet although the Dutch were not the first in the field, they took up the tulip with the most enthusiasm. Unlike today when bright flowers proliferate, the range of colourful garden plants available then was severely limited. The tulip became so desirable that it provoked a financial crisis.
Bulbs of exotic specimens were traded at enormous prices: in one famous case three specimens of a red-and-white striped variety fetched 30,000 guilders, roughly the price of three good-sized houses. They were valued by individual weight, like diamonds. People sold the family silver to get in on the rapidly rising market.
'Tulip mania' reached its peak in 1637. By then the number of people wanting to invest exceeded the number of bulbs being grown, so vouchers were issued instead - equivalent to the modern commodity futures market. The vouchers too were traded at ever soaring prices until, in April 1637, the bulb bubble burst when the Dutch authorities insisted that all the vouchers had to be honoured. There were not enough bulbs to go round and hundreds of speculators were ruined overnight.
For two centuries tulips continued to be valued as highly as, say, orchids are today. Their image appeared on rugs, fabrics, tiles and other pottery: the 'tulip charger', a large decorative dish, was a popular item of English delftware in the 17th century. Dutch potters soon designed the first purpose-
made vases, with spouts to display the flowers individually.
It was not until the boom in popular gardening in the 19th century that the tulip became commonplace and the Dutch started to grow bulbs in bulk to satisfy demand. Today they grow 3 billion a year, 2 billion of which are exported. Many of the remainder produce cut flowers for sale.
Today tulips come in a bewildering number of varieties and species. These are the main groups, in order of flowering:
Kaufmanniana: The earliest, flowering from mid-March, with short stems and pointed heads in many colour combinations.
Single and double early: Quite short stems, flowering in early April. Singles have traditional egg-shaped heads. These are the most popular kinds of tulip, partly because they finish their flowering early enough to let you get to grips with your summer bedding.
Triumph: Tall, strong stems, average 20in. Huge range of colours, flower late April to early May.
Darwin: Long stems and large distinctive oval flowers coming to a point at the top. Late April.
Single and double late: Larger flowers and longer stems than their earlier counterparts, probably the best varieties for cutting. The doubles are sometimes called 'peony-flowered'. Bloom in May.
Lily-flowered: Pointed petals arch away from the slender flower head. Good cut flowers. Long stems, May-flowering.
Parrot: Crenellated and fringed flowers, many in dazzling colour combinations. May-flowering. Love them or loathe them.
Rembrandt: Traditionally-shaped head but with a variety of stripes and odd colours. Blooms in May.
Fringed: A small group with delicate, spiky fringes to the petals. Blooming in May, they make effective cut flowers.
Viridiflora: A cult tulip: all the varieties have some green in the petals. Flowers mid-May.
Species tulips: These small specialised varieties, mostly between 4in and 10in tall, are becoming increasingly popular in rock gardens, where they are kept in the ground all year round. Flowering varies from March to May.
Gardeners with a sense of history, who want to grow one of the 16th-century varieties, could go for a species called Tulipa Praestans 'Fusilier'. It is a little taller than most of the species and carries between four and six deep scarlet flowers on each stem.
It appears in the catalogue of the Jacques Amand nursery in Stanmore, north London, a mail-order bulb specialist. Founded in 1927, it is now run by Jacques' son, John, who reports a consistent demand for tulips.
'There has been a move towards the smaller varieties,' he says. 'A lot of people have small gardens, or they want to grow them in tubs on their patios. And the two-coloured ones are getting more popular as well.'
Some gardeners lift the bulbs after flowering, complete with leaves and stem, and store them for next year. In most cases though they are unlikely to reach their original size and will not flower as well the second year. It is best to buy new ones: prices range from 20p per bulb up to pounds 7 for the rarest.
Because all the nutrition the plant needs is stored in the bulb, tulips will do well on almost any ground that is not too soggy, although they prefer a soil low in acid. If you are choosing bulbs from a retailer, look for firmness and a rich brown skin. Do not buy any that seem dried out.
Plant as soon as the summer bedding is lifted and no later than November. The planting hole should be about three times the depth of the bulb, and it helps to put a little sand in the bottom.
Do all that and they will, as Rupert Brooke promised, bloom as they are told.
Jacques Amand Ltd, The Nurseries, Clamp Hill, Stanmore, Middlesex HA7 3JS (081-954 8138).
These are the 10 best-selling tulips at the Jacques Amand bulb nursery:
Apricot Beauty (pictured left): Pinky-orange single early, 15in. Princess Irene: Single early with pale orange flowers flecked with purple, 12in. New Design: Starts out yellow and matures to pink and pale red, 18-20in. Arabian Mystery: Deep violet edged with white, 18in. Queen of the Night: Maroon, single late, 24in. White Triumphator: Pure white and lily-flowered, 24in. Angelique: Double late, two shades of pink, 16in. Mount Tacoma: All-white double late, 16in. Artist: Viridiflora variety. Purple and salmon with green marking inside the petals, 18in. Spring Green: Another Viridiflora, ivory flecked with green, 16in.
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