So I couldn’t get the tulip that I wanted. I had ordered and grown “Jacqueline” the previous year – to start with almost as a joke, because it’s a friend’s name. They were pure deep-pink and lily-flowered; their photo alone made me smile. And “Jacqueline” came up beautifully. Not only did she come up the first year, but the bulbs made a repeat showing – the only tulips of that year’s vast imperial spread to manage a second time around.
“Jacqueline” ended up charming the whole neighbourhood. People stopped and admired; they asked for her name and then actually wrote it down. I thought about ordering an extra bag, 30 or 40, to plant up for friends, so we could have themed “our road” tulip pots. And that’s when the trouble began.
Because by then “Jacqueline” had dropped off the horti radar. In the two years between being fêted in the catalogue and making a star performance in the heart of London’s Travelcard Zone 3, she’d been dumped. By everyone. Parkers, De Jager, the lot. Despite her shiny spring pinkness and her perky floral attitude, I couldn’t find a soul to sell her to me.
I complained about this. Vociferously. I complained to friends, acquaintances, but most of all to people who sell bulbs for a living. “Ah yes, well, tulips just do come and go. Be no room for the new ones if we kept all the old ones!” one sage told me. Wow, thanks. “It’s not always our fault,” he continued, slightly more apologetically. “There was a wonderful parrot tulip that everyone wanted a few years ago. The entire world stock was in one lorry going from one side of Holland to the other, and the driver crashed and went into a ditch. Wiped the tulip out.”
Apart from such apocalyptic scenarios, I mourn the notion that such a good tulip could suddenly be gone. I spent a long time at the Bloms stand at the 2013 Chelsea Flower Show, sizing up my other possibilities. For example, Bloms sells “Mariette”, a very good pink lily-flowered tulip, as a possible replacement. Or “Yonina”, with really flared rose petals, almost angled like fighter-jet wings, with a subtle whitening towards the tips. But “Mariette” is taller, more vase-like, and “Yonina” is slightly too stylised: neither has Jacqueline’s playfulness. Even as I fill in the order form, naming “Mariette” for 2014, I’m irritated that I can’t just have “Jacqueline”.
Richard Wilford, bulb supremo at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, doesn’t tackle my “Jacqueline issues” in his new book Growing Garden Bulbs (£7, Royal Botanic Gardens), but he does have a go at pretty much everything else. It’s a slim, useful book, ideal for a first-time bulb-grower. Wilford is a tulip enthusiast, but is cheerfully devoted to almost anything that grows from a corm, rhizome or tuber, as seen in his changing pot displays in Kew’s Davies Alpine House, showing off something good every week of the year.
Wilford has a lot of useful tips about how to tackle the long-term care of bulbs (feed with tomato food when the plants are in bloom, to avoid producing leaf rather than flowers); and has many pointers on planting, either in pots or in the soil. But of course the real fun is his choice selection of good flowering bulbs to run right across the gardening year, beginning with elegant snowdrops such as Galanthus elwesii in winter and ending with the bright sting of lilac provided by autumn cyclamen, already blooming in my garden.
For each bulb group, Wilford provides several good choices, plus some more unusual options for the fancier horticulturalist. Look under tulips, and you’ll find reminders of lovely “Prinses Irene”, a glorious, flaming royal Dutch orange, and the austere, stylish flair of “White Triumphator”. And for the already initiated he puts in a word for the species tulips, which will come back year after year if grown right.
But I still pine for “Jacqueline”. And I was reminded once more while reading a post by Helen Johnstone, who blogs at patient gardener.wordpress.com. She was enthusing about Peter Nyssen Bulbs (peternyssen.com), and after chatting to her about it, I had a look at their website. I applied the “Jacqueline test”. I idly typed in my most enduring bulbular obsession, and up she came. Finally, “Jacqueline” is on her way. Thank you Helen, and thank you, thank you, Peter Nyssen.