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Throughout their colorful history, these fashionable flowers from Holland have stayed in step with the tastes of the times.

Tulips are popping up all over these days--and not just in flower beds. A spate of new books and newspaper stories featuring the popular flower have burst upon the scene, and tulips have even landed a leading role in a new film, Tulip Fever, being developed by Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks. The movie is set during the 17th century "tulipomania" in Holland when new tulip cultivars were in such demand that a single bulb could command a price of $40,000.

Thanks to the new interest in the flowers, demand for tulips in the United States last year was up 15 to 20 percent, says Robert Perilla of the Flower Council of Holland. One supermarket chain in Dallas sold an incredible 360,000 tulips in just two months--evidence that tulipomania can happen anywhere.

In Holland, where 90 percent of the world's commercial tulips are still grown, bulb farmers are smiling as they rev up their plots in response to worldwide demand.

As Sally Ferguson of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center in Brooklyn explains, "What we are seeing is a `tulipmania-mania,' due mainly to the ongoing spectacle of Internet stock trading."

Ferguson also points out that tulip tastes are ever-changing, and Dutch tulip fields in bloom display exactly which colors are hot. "Currently, the jewel-colored tulips are grabbing more space," she says. "There are the brilliant gemlike hues such as `Ruby Red' or a real `Crystalline Orange.' But there are also plenty of hectares planted in the ever-popular pastels."

Pastel tulips have been America's favorites for years, she explains. Two that have stolen America's heart are the exquisite `Apricot Beauty' and the pink double-peony tulip, `Angelique'

These tulips have it all, she says--beauty and tremendous performance. But their story illustrates the mercurial nature of the tulip marketplace. Introduced in 1953, `Apricot Beauty' was a tulip ahead of its time. The pastel flower remained virtually anonymous for more than 35 years while the tulip-planting public enjoyed the rich primary colors that were popular during that time.

Suddenly, in the late 1980s, the pastels took the gardening world by storm. Ferguson continues, "`Apricot Beauty' soared. Everyone went bananas over the `new' colors, but of course, they weren't really new at all. They had been developing in Dutch bulb gardens for years."

`Apricot Beauty' she describes as "apricot flushed with pink," but more than that, the exquisite blossom somehow gives an impression of "shimmering effervescently in an apricoty rose hue." `Angelique' is a pink tulip, flushed with multiple shades of the color, a raving beauty. Both flowers are fragrant.

Our penchant for pastels and the recent craze for gem colors cannot compare to the Hollanders' early love affair with Rembrandt tulips. Those once-pricey flowers, with their flamed and broken colors, are now making a comeback. Named for their frequent depiction in Dutch masters' paintings (although Rembrandt himself rarely painted them), Rembrandt tulips were caused by a virus that attacked Holland's tulip crop in the early 17th century. Today, virused tulips are used only for research. Twentieth-century Rembrandt cultivars are look-alikes that have been bred. Unlike their virused forebears, whose every blossom was unique, these modern tulips' blossoms are all uniform. They also are no longer expensive.

There is, however, a dark side to the tulip world. Its undisputed empress is `Queen of Night', a so-called "black" tulip. (Actually, it's a velvety maroon, since a truly black tulip is genetically impossible.) Exquisitely chic in the garden, `Queen of Night' has one chronic problem--its name.

"Over and over you see it called `Queen of the Night'," says Ferguson. "If you know anything about tulips, you know right away that's a mistake, because it has four words." Tulip names are preferred to be two words, and three is the maximum. "Yet even some high-profile catalogs list it that way," she says.

While black is chic in the garden, the favorite color of tulip for flower arrangements appears to be white. But white tulips are in short supply, says Jim Adams of The Tulip Company in Terre Haute, Indiana. His firm is among a handful of companies that force-grow Dutch bulbs for sale to wholesale florists nationwide.

"Right now white tulips are very popular--and have been for several years," Adams says. Unfortunately, they are prone to disease. "During the last two or three years, it has been very hard to find good white bulbs, and we could use all we can get."

Meanwhile, bulb hybridizers are busy producing new and different tulips, only a small percentage of which will ever reach market. They're even working to produce a tulip blacker than `Queen of Night.'

This year some 150 new tulips will be christened and placed in the international register of tulip names, after which those names never can be changed.

To qualify for christening, a tulip must have some trait that differentiates it from the thousands of other christened tulips. One of the new tulips for 2000 will be the `Coors' tulip, slated for christening in April. This white tulip with red stripes, which opens in the daytime and closes at night, is named for the famous American brewing family whose corporate colors happen to be red and white.

"Having a tulip named for one is quite an honor," says Holly Coors, matriarch of the family, who will be sprinkling the namesake blossom with champagne in the traditional christening ceremony. "This is a long process," she says. "It takes five years to go from seed to bulb." It will be another two years before the new tulip will be commercially available, and then in limited quantities. The `Coors' tulip will join the `Heineken' tulip as the world's only tulips named for brewers. The `Heineken' tulip is appropriately yellow, with a white frothy edge.

Other tulips named for famous people in recent years were the `Audrey Hepburn' tulip, named collaboratively by the entire flower industry, and the `Hillary Clinton' tulip christened by the first lady at the residence of the ambassador of the Netherlands in Washington, D.C.

What does the future hold for tulips? They still have a way to go, says Robert Perilla, to be as popular as roses, which outsell them three to one. Yet they are the third most popular flower, behind roses and carnations. Given time and a continuing bull market, however, tulips may someday prevail.

Tulip Tips

Tulips make beautiful bouquets, but "cutting them from your own yard can be tricky," says Jim Adams of The Tulip Company in Terre Haute, Indiana. "If you don't do it right, you may not have any tulips coming up next year." His advice: follow the Dutch growers' technique of cutting only the stem and one leaf. This will allow the bulb to survive and flower in the next season.

Adams' firm imports Dutch bulbs, force-grows them, then sells them as cut flowers to wholesale florists nationwide. It's an exacting operation, he says. Bulbs from Holland must be kept at a constant low temperature during shipping. Their temperature is then gradually lowered at the company's greenhouses and later brought back up as the tulips are coaxed into blooming. Each species of bulb has a different growing schedule, Adams says. The company ships some 1.8 million forced flowers nationwide between January and May.

As cut flowers, tulips survive longer than many roses. Generally they will last about one week, Adams says. "It all depends on the temperature of the room. It's heat that kills flowers."

To make tulips last longer, he recommends cutting them as soon as they start to show some color and placing the stems in clean, cold water. Every three days, cut a quarter inch or so off the stems and change the water. Most important, keep tulips out of the sun, since they prefer a cool part of the house.

"Some restaurants that use our tulips put them in a beer cooler overnight. The blossoms close up, then open the next day when brought out. These flowers will last as long as ten days," Adams says. To keep tulips fresh at home, you can set them outside or in an unheated area overnight, as long as the temperature does not fall to freezing (32 degrees), Adams says.

"We keep ours at 33 degrees. The colder it is, the better they like it."
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Author:Kreiter, Ted
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 2000
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