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Tulips and My Winter Color Surrogate

Pink Tulips - California Every year right around the start of February I start yearning for more color in my life. The part of the world where I live is not uniformly white in the dead of winter, but like most places the California coast is not as vibrant as it is other times of the year. What makes me start to search out color is an unconscious anticipation of spring - brought about by the first of the winter rains. That first speck of moisture has turned the normally brown wild grasses green and the Acacia trees are starting to put out their tiny yellow blossoms (jam packed with pollen by the way). The ornamental fruit trees are blooming but the "real" fruit trees' fragrant blossoms are weeks away and the poppies, foxgloves, and sunflowers of summer are still little more than seeds. What I crave are the true colors of spring - and tulips are my winter surrogate. Red/ Orange Tulips - My Kitchen The tulip of choice does not come from my yard (I found out the hard way that gophers love tulips) but rather from a small greenhouse producer in Soquel, California that I buy at a little farm stand on the way to my son's school. I say on the way because I am generally disappointed if I wait until the afternoon to buy some- like me it seems many others need a reminder of the coming spring. This farmer is tiny - producing flowers off of a mere quarter million bulbs every year. But the quality of the product is spectacular and every year it seems there is a new color or variety. Greenhouse Tulips - California Another thing I like about tulips is that they are an incredibly diverse and successful perennial - of the 2.5 billion tulips produced worldwide every year, most can be grown in the same geographic area they are sold. In a world where the production of flowers has become a global business and supply chains can stretch for thousands of miles, the tulip has the advantage of being able to literally put down roots almost anywhere. You may not be fortunate enough to have a tulip producer right up the street but chances are there is one fairly close by. Bulbs Just Out of Cold Storage - Virginia Tulips are a cool climate plant that require a period of dormancy every year in order to produce a flower. This is done commercially by storing bulbs in giant coolers until they are ready to be planted or placed in a greenhouse. Growers can also use this method to regulate the size of their crop - chilling larger or smaller amounts to match demand. This makes the ramp up in volume for holidays like Valentine's Day much easier. Valentine's Day - Texas Tulips have been commercially cultivated for 400 years and their origins date back even further. Indigenous to Central Asian countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey, the tulip (or lale) was so highly valued its bulbs were once used as currency. Even today the rights for a new variety will cost upwards of a million dollars. Holland has long held the reins as the center of the tulip universe - but France, Japan, New Zealand and Chile are all major bulb producers. Greenhouse Tulips - California For me the lofty tulip has a much simpler purpose as part of my "winter emergence" routine - I buy a bunch towards the end of the week and for the next several days I watch the mystery of cell expansion unfold. When tulips are harvested the cells of the plant are tight and compressed.  As the plant ages these cells open up making the bloom larger and the stems longer (and weaker). This "goose neck" effect is another in a long list of things I love about this elegant flower. Prized White Tulips - Virginia Mostly though, it's the color - the tulip is another example of the timing and artistry of Mother Nature. Just when you think winter will go on forever, we get a short intense reminder that spring is not far away. Thanks to James Flagg, Josiah Leet, and Bob Flood for contributing to this post.