It was wrapped in a small paper bag, marked 'Double late'. The terrifying thing was the date: 1750. In the same cardboard box was a collection of equally antique tulips: 'Bessie' raised in Wakefield in 1847; 'Habit de Noces' from 1785; and breeder bulbs of other historic tulips such as 'Sam Barlow', raised in the 19th century by a Mr Storer of Derby and named after the foremost grower of the day. I have seen it only in old engravings with petals like the yolks of free-range eggs, flamed down the centre with rich mahogany brown.
The day I planted those tulips was the most worrying day of the whole autumn. I consulted all the oracles. I took advice from fellow members of the Wakefield society. I read what Sir Daniel Hall had to say in his monograph of 1927. I chose a south-facing border in the vegetable garden, the best piece of ground I have, where the soil is well worked and better drained than anywhere else in my predominantly heavy, clayey patch.
I planted the bulbs deep, with grit underneath to deter underground slugs. I covered them with chicken wire against squirrels. I mixed plenty of bonemeal with the soil to fatten them up. All the time I felt the heavy weight of responsibility. I did not want to be the link that broke the chain that has, against extraordinary odds, carried these museum pieces through more than 200 years of growing, into the late 20th century.
You think a piece of bone china is a remarkable survival. Not half so remarkable as a bulb, with slugs the size of tortoises eyeing it up at every opportunity, and growing conditions fluctuating faster than shares on the stock market.
Billy Tear is much more sanguine about the whole tulip business than I am. He has been growing them for 51 years, since he was 13. His father, Albert, was also a keen fancier. He worked as a cobbler, and it took him more than a year to save up enough money to buy his first bulbs.
The Wakefield society, founded in 1836, is the last survivor of what was once a flourishing network of florists' societies that grew auriculas, pinks, ranunculus and tulips. Pubs were their meeting places, the shows usually taking place in an upper room with the flowers displayed in beer bottles.
The English Florists' tulips, roses, bybloemens and bizarres were not rated for their size but for their markings. They have long since disappeared from commerce. The Wakefield society members Jack Taylor, Hubert Calvert, the Akers and the Eyres are the heroes who have ensured their survival. Today the society holds two annual shows, one for Dutch tulips, one for the English Florists' tulips (details below). The meetings are no longer held in pubs, but the flowers are still displayed in beer bottles. Find some reason to weekend near Wakefield on 15 May, the time of the English show, see 'Sir Joseph Paxton', a bizarre raised in 1850, and die.
Although it is sacrilege to say it, Mr Tear, now retired from his work as a joiner, is more of a Dutchman than an Englishman. I first met him three years ago at the Royal Horticultural Society hall in Vincent Square, London, on the eve of a spring show that included a tulips competition. On the coach to Victoria from Normanton, West Yorkshire, Mr Tear had brought about 60 blooms, wrapped in damp newspaper and held on his knees.
He had one of my favourite parrot tulips there, a wild red number called 'Doorman' splaying in a magnificently feckless way out of its prim green RHS vase. He was also showing the cottage tulip 'Menton', a tall, robust flower of china rose, the edges of its petals striped with apricot.
It was almost 10 o'clock at night when he finished arranging his exhibits. Was he going to come to the judging the following day, I asked? No, he said. In 10 minutes, he was going to walk back up the Vauxhall Bridge Road and catch the last coach back home to Yorkshire.
That made me feel I had a long way to go in the business of being a tulip fancier. And later, at home, when I was putting the reject tulips he had given me in a jug, I realised how far I had to go to become an even half-decent grower. Mr Tear's rejects were blooms I would have dragged every passerby within a 10-mile radius into my garden to see.
Mr Tear won a first with 'Menton' at that show and a second with 'Doorman'. Another of his blooms, 'Red Parrot', won the first in the parrot tulip class. In fact, he won firsts in seven of the RHS classes, and where he didn't, Arthur Robinson, a fellow Yorkshireman and member of the Wakefield society, did.
One day, a recklessly optimistic, ambitious day a few weeks ago, I dreamt of taking my double early 'Abba' tulips up for this year's show (held on the 20 and 21 April). On that day, they were good tulips: a beautiful rich tomato red, feathered elegantly on the outside with yellow. I took a photograph of them. Just as well, for three days later Joshua the cat jumped into their large square stone container and lay elegantly down.
Sir Daniel, the great authority on the tulip, was very rude about double earlies. 'It may be argued,' he wrote magisterially, 'that double tulips are more lasting, but it is no gain that a nightmare should endure for two nights instead of one.' Purity of form was his benchmark, and no one can pretend double earlies have much of that.
Nowithstanding, I heartily recommend 'Abba', though remain embarrassed about the name. There are some other good doubles too. 'Mount Tacoma' is an untidy but generous tulip with a short stubby white flower that splays open to reveal a very full centre of short secondary petals; it looks rather like a peony, and flowers later than 'Abba' (May rather than April).
Sir Daniel would have approved more of T. orphanidea whittallii, which reduced me to a covetous wreck at the Cambridge Botanic Garden last spring. Now it is flowering on the bank in my own garden. Acquired legally, I ought to say. It is an outstanding small tulip of perfect form, its petals the colour of burnt-orange caramel, but washed over with complicated overlays of rust and green. The inside is a brighter colour than the out. It makes a perfect bud, all the petals meeting in a sharp point at the top; at the bottom of the inner petals is an indeterminate black blotch, smudged over with yellow.
The Wakefield Tulip Society's Dutch flower show is on 8 May (2-5pm) at Wrenthorpe Village Hall, near Wakefield. Its English Florists' show is on 15 May (2-5) at Normanton Civic Centre, near Wakefield. Membership of the society costs pounds 4. Details from Wendy Akers, 70 Wrenthorpe Lane, Wrenthorpe, West Yorkshire WF2 0PT. T. orphanidea whittallii is available from: Avon Bulbs, Burnt House Farm, Mid Lambrook, Somerset TA13 5HE (0460 42177) (send four second-class stamps for catalogue); and from Broadleigh Gardens, Bishop's Hull, Taunton, Somerset TA4 1AE (0823 286231) (send two first-class stamps for catalogue). For a full account of the florists' societies, read Florists' Flowers and Societies by Ruth Duthie (Shire Publications, pounds 3.50).
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