Building A Bulb Collection

The author describes the joy her collection of heirloom tulips and other bulbs has brought her, and includes specific information on the individual flowers and their origin.

My husband and I are the curators of a little bulb museum, on our very typical 60-by-120-foot lot in an older neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri. We live on McGee Street, and we call our museum the Hortus Bulborum McGeeinsis, a name inspired by the Hortus Bulborum in Holland

Our collection of old daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths grew out of a distinct weakness for anything that predates the astounding technical and horticultural advances of the late 20th century. Many of our flowers have a provenance that can be traced back to the days when buffalo roamed what is now our front yard, and when men in the charming little cities of Holland wore funny hats and lace collars and were obsessively passionate about their flower bulbs.

The price of admission into the world of historic bulbs is low: for a few bucks, you’re the owner of a crinkly-skinned Dutch master. Some of these wonderful old bulbs have remained in cultivation for centuries, while many others were lost in the giddy rush toward all things modern.

In the 1630s, when speculation in tulips was so hot that bulbs were being traded even before anyone had seen the flowers, a few sensible pamphleteers admonished buyers to slow down and take some pleasure in the blooms. In the annual spring frenzy around my garden, I try to remind myself to do the same.

A year ago, some Dutch friends presented me with the extravagant gift of a package of very old tulip cultivars from the Hortus Bulborum. My husband and I mapped the locations of these precious artifacts as we planted them one bright fall day, but we nevertheless managed to place some right among several other kinds of tulips. It was a bit difficult to be sure what we had, at first, when they started coming up in the spring.

The package of 50 bulbs-5 each of 10 different tulips-included 15 prized Duc van Tol cultivars in three colors: orange, violet, and red and yellow. The red and yellow Duc, the oldest bulb in the Hortus Bulborum, dates to 1595. The "duckies," as I am told they are called, are a very small group of single early tulips; there are about 15 cultivars, most of them known only in historical collections. To grow them is to evoke, in an immediate and down-to-earth way, gardens of long, long ago. They bloomed in ours in early April.

Duc van Tol tulips grow to only about six inches tall. Although they created a sensation in the meticulously laid out formal gardens of their day, they seem rather shy now, at their best in intimate conversational settings, rather than in the midst of boisterous spring gatherings of the modern young hybrids. My husband cut some for my desk when the weather turned bad-an orange and a violet, both with a white edge, and the flashy little red and yellow-and made an entry in our gardening notebook: "small and fine."

In the ivy under an old silver maple, we planted ‘Yellow Prince’ (introduced in 1780), with ‘Rex Rubrorum’ (1830) and ‘Purperkroon’ (also known as ‘The Moor’, 1785). The Prince’s lemon yellow flowers, with tiny streaks of red, were luminous, but ‘Purperkroon’, a double early tulip with marvelously baroque, ruffled deep crimson flowers, proved perhaps the greatest treasure in this jewel box of bulbs. Being only about 10 inches tall, it seemed a bit lost in the ivy. Three of the flowers came inside, where they glowed magnificently in a slender silver vase for days.

‘Insulinde’ (1915) came into bloom on a warm day in late April. I feared I had lost it in the carnival crowd of our garden, but discovered the flowers, with deep, dusky purple feathers brushed on a yellow background, in a clump of jaunty red-splashed ‘World Expression’ tulips, a modern cultivar with old-world style, which they much resembled in the bud. ‘Insulinde’ is taller than most of the other bulbs in our selection from the Hortus Bulborum. The flowers held their own, nodding in the spring breeze under the lifting sweep of a witch hazel’s branches.

These tulips all show a lot of stamina and substance. Old varieties have in general proved themselves stalwart and long lasting in our garden. The soft pink hyacinth ‘Lady Derby’ (1875) is among the best of the hyacinths we grow, more beautiful now that it is comfortably established and no longer so stiffly formal. Tulipa schrenkii (1585), T. ‘Peach Blossom’ (1890), and T. ‘Keizerskroon’ (1750) have had long careers here, although they slip away over the years.

Among daffodils, historic is, officially, any flower that appeared before 1940. I have flower-show ribbons to prove that ‘Seagull’ (1893) and ‘Thalia’ (1916) are still very competitive varieties, but that doesn’t mean so much: old daffodils have such charm they’ll win the harshest judge’s heart. ‘Mrs. R. O. Backhouse’ (1921), with its pink cup, is one of the earliest to bloom in our garden, on a west-facing slope where we also grow ‘Sir Watkin’ (1868) and the whimsical little ‘W. P. Milner’ (1869), which is pale yellow for us but is said to be white in warmer climates.

We acquired many of our nicest old daffodils in exchanges with participants in the American Daffodil Society’s historic-daffodils round robin, a thoroughly old-fashioned correspondence that circulated in the early 1990s. We shared our experiences with like-minded daffodil fanatics in a thick package of mostly hand-written letters. I revealed one of my darkest secrets to the group: that I had difficulty keeping up with the labeling of the daffodils in our garden. I was sure, though, in my naivete, that I could never, ever confuse the graceful ‘White Lady’ (1897) with the similarly charming ‘Lucifer’ (1890).

Brash statements do not always go over well in letters, even among friends, and I was reproached for my cavalier attitude. I kicked myself off the robin before anyone else could do it for me. I have since confused ‘White Lady’ and ‘Lucifer’ many times, so far without serious consequences. It is for just this sort of perplexing situation that every great museum also has a great library and archives, back out of the public view, and there is such a library, suitably proportioned, in a private office here at the Hortus Bulborum McGeeinsis.

Find Hortus Bulborum bulbs in the US at Old House Gardens www.oldhousegardens.com.

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