The candy rich colors of tulips are popping all over town. Actually, a few started in early May—those located on southern exposures where warmth reflected off buildings helped the buds push up. Tulips make great additions to northern gardens: easy to plant, easy to tend, lovely to enjoy. But they come with one caution, don’t plant them where the moose tread. As delicious as they appear to us, the flowers literally are savored by the large, hooved beasts.
Just look at these rich cups of color! It’s a good thing they are not aggressive in the garden. Tulips do grow easy here, yet they do not last for more than two or three years. The soil is not rich enough for their taste. However, Tulip tarda, a species tulip, with roots in the mountains Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and northwest China may return for Alaskans year after year. Since the little darling grew up in sub-alpine habitats, it only makes sense that it could live here. Only in the past few years have folks in Alaska have tried it. Tulip tarda is the yellow and white variety seen here.
Once upon a time I lived in Texas where tulip bulbs had to be kept in refrigerators most of the winter before planting. Imagine if you wanted 50, or 100, or 200 depending on the size of your flower beds. You’d have to get a separate fridge or freezer to winterize your bulbs. In Alaska bulbs are received in the early fall and planted by October at the latest—before the ground freezes. Folks in Alaska prefer their extra fridge or freezer hold salmon, moose, or berries.
One of the tulips shown here, the yellow and red variety, gains its coloration because it is infected with a virus. Commonly called tulip breaking virus, the pathogen leads to either fading or intensifying of color pigments. Dorothy Cayley, a horticulturist at the John Innes Horticultural Institution, experimented with tulips and the virus until she discovered it was transferred via aphids that carried sap from one plant to another.
Though the bulb can live with the virus for a year or two, eventually the bulb falls victim to the pathogen and the plant dies. Such short lived excitement lends another cause to our collective romance for the fleeting beauty of flowers.