A long Easter weekend is imminent and the air all around is buzzing with the news that this is due to be a double-bank holiday of sunshine and summerly temperatures; a combination that will surely encourage garden-lovers everywhere out into their green spaces to delight in discovering which winter-forgotten plants have emerged from their earthy eiderdown.
As spring daubs the garden with fresh colour, we couldn’t help musing over the flower which best symbolises Easter. And our conclusion? What could it be other than the overtly ovate Tulip?
Easter’s Floral Tribute
Spring is the season of rebirth and rejuvenation, as nature envelopes the landscape with a fresh green mantle and the Easter festival celebrates the resurrection. We give confectionery eggs in the tradition of times past, when eggs and sugar were prohibited during Lent, and with their pretty pastel petals neatly packed into elegant oviform packages, ready to burst open and reveal luminous colour in a myriad of shades, surely if we were standing in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory then tulip buds would be Easter eggs?
Now, many spring bulbs seem to retreat underground as autumn mists lose out to freezing frosts and they are amongst the first to peek their heads above the ground again in spring, and so, any one of these deciduous wonders could be a contender for the flower of Easter, but it’s what goes on underneath the earth that makes the Tulip our number one.
Tulip seeds take many years to become bulbs, some taking as much as 12 years to develop into flowering bulbs. Once the initial bulb finally flowers, the bulb disappears and a new or ‘clone’ bulb forms in its place along with several bulb-buds, which will, in turn, become bulbs in their own right. What could be more Easter-appropriate than that?
If you’ve seen the recent movie ‘Tulip Fever’ then you’ll be aware that during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century, tulips were extremely fashionable and held in such high esteem that some varieties were changing hands for extraordinary sums of money.
Tulips were coveted for their intense colour, sparking experiments with cross-breeding in order to develop a wider palette of colours. A profusion of varieties was soon available including single coloured and streaked examples.
It was the streaked varieties that were most desired and it’s since been discovered that the streaking effect is caused by a virus known as ‘Tulip Breaking Virus’, hence these varieties are called ‘Broken’. The virus only spreads through bulbs, not seeds, so breeding new varieties can take many years. Perhaps this, teamed with the exhilaration that their extraordinary, flamed appearance would have caused, may be part of the reason that they skyrocketed in price in the early years of their production?
But the Dutch were by no means the first to fall in love with this refined flower. First found in Kazakhstan in the 16th Century, the Tulip was discovered by the conquering Ottoman army who brought specimens back with them to the capital of the Ottoman Empire – Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Constantinople was the centre of this fantastically wealthy and sophisticated culture and was considered one of the most powerful and beautiful cities in the world. Its gardens, in particular, were famed throughout the civilised world and tulips became a firm favourite, seen as denoting the wealth and status of a garden’s owner.
Most famous of all were the Tulip Gardens of Sultan Ahmed the 3rd, who reigned during the Tulip Period of 1718-1730, when the whole court celebrated the flower in poetry, art and festivals. Each spring, when the tulips bloomed, the city’s great and good would hold magnificent parties which continued as long as the flowers lasted. At the Sultan’s party, foreign dignitaries were awestruck, noting how the blooms were exalted by candlelight. Every 4th flower had a candle mounted in line with its head, causing its petals to gleam with colour, like sunshine through stained glass. Cages of songbirds hung from low-slung boughs of trees, along paths with more candles placed in bottles of coloured glass in front of huge mirrors, reflecting the light through the garden and creating a kaleidoscope of colour. The Sultan even had tortoises with candles attached to their shells roaming through the tulips beds, lighting the way for guests to find the treasures of sweet treats and precious stones which he had hidden there. It must have been like stepping into a fantasy world.
If the Tulip Paradise Gardens of the Ottoman Empire sound like some unattainably far-off dream world, then think again. You can step into your own piece of paradise, designed with pleasure and harmony in mind, by utilising the same design principles which form the foundations of Persian Paradise Gardens or simply borrowing certain features and elements to compliment an existing garden scheme.
Paradise gardens are traditionally divided into 4 quarters, usually by the use of paths or waterways like rills, flowing water around the garden from a sparkling central pool or refreshing fountain at its heart. Traditionally, each of the 4 beds created was sunken, often by over 6ft, adorned with fruit trees and underplanted with tulips, roses and irises. The depth of the beds meant that the crown of any fruit trees would be within easy reach and as you leant over to pluck a fruit, you’d be greeted by a carpet of colourful blooms.
Think that a Paradise Garden might seem at odds with the rugged and lush British landscape? You may be surprised to find that many of our greatest and most typically ‘British’ gardens, in appearance, incorporate strong elements of Paradise Garden design. For example, at Wollerton Old Hall we see the finely clipped symmetry of topiary yew pyramids and Pashley Manor in Sussex is noted for the straight lines of its paved paths, softened in spring by masses of pink tulips of all shades.
But you don’t have to completely re-design your garden to take inspiration from the Sultans of Ottoman. You can bring their favourite flower into your scheme by simply lining your walk-ways with tons of tulips or layering up large pots with bulbs, adding tulips as your bottom layer to offer long-lasting spring colour.