On Saturday, May eighth, I went to the renown Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society’s 175th annual Tulip Show. I had originally heard of it, or, rather, of the society, from reading the Old Home Garden’s bulb catalog; they’d mentioned “florist’s bulbs” but I had no idea just what they were talking about. However, I looked up the society they had mentioned (some time around January of this year) and got the date for their tulip show (May 8th) and decided I was going to go.
Well! It all turned out to be a bit of an adventure. Wakefield is not on the list of major tourist stops, and is a branch line from a branch line and a little difficult to get to; and after I’d made arrangements to be in a nearby town (Bradford) the night before, I discovered the show itself was going to be held, not in Wakefield as I expected, but in the even smaller town of Horbury! This seemed quite confusing (not to mention difficult to get to) but as I’d booked train tickets to Bradford, I figured I’d just get it all sorted on the day.
I’m pleased to say that despite being really confused about where all of these towns were and not having a car or even much of a map, I did manage to make to the show and had a fabulous time. The folks at the Bradford travel center got me nicely sorted with bus maps and schedules (Bradford to Wakefield, then Wakefield to Horbury) and a 8 quid family travel pass (good for me and my friend). I caught the 425 (or 427) bus out of Bradford at around noon on Saturday, and arrived one hour later in Wakefield; five minutes more and I was on the 126 (or 127) to Horbury. Twenty or so minutes passed and I disembarked on the main street near “Queen Street,” where Google had seen fit to point out (at #32) the Cottage Tea Rooms; as I hoped (it being a Saturday), they were open, and lunch was sorted. My traveling companion Amy’s pie was excellent; my roast beef was dry, but at less than 5 quid a plate we felt we had little to complain about, and the tea was very pleasant as were the sweets (brownie and coconut slice) we bought for later nibbling.
Refreshed, we walked up the High Street and made it in short order to Primrose Hall, nicely visible from the road and very close to a bus stop. We walked in the door (no charge!) and found … a room full of mostly silver-haired folks, with two sets of tables running the length of a very long room, one covered with beer bottles with amazing broken tulips in it; the other covered with vases packed full of more traditional long-stemmed Darwin hybrid, fringed, parrot, and other beauties (including two or three species, Clusiana one of them – referred to as “Dutch” tulips by the attendees, if I’m not mistaken). All of the flowers had been judged, and the beer bottles (each labeled with the flower type) were broken into categories, such as “novice three breeders” and “one each breeder, flamed, feathered” or “three feathered, each different,” et cetera. They’d been awarded firsts, seconds, and thirds; the names of the winners were visible on the cards announcing their awards, and the flowers that composed their sets (if the category was for more than one flower) were arranged in rows behind the card. The effect was strange; the brown bottles were so very humble, but the flowers poking out of them were the birds of paradise of the tulip world. Stubby-stemmed and plainly displayed, they shamed the leggy lovelies across the aisle from them: the graceful neck of fifteen Queen of the Nights simply can’t hold a candle to the spangled spectacle of a “feathered” “bizarre” tulip, all gold and red and otherworldly. And I was in a whole ROOM full of people that shared that feeling with me. It was heaven!
The show itself felt rather like an American county fair. The sense of the people in the room knowing each other well was very strong, which was not surprising, as in a society with a geographical boundary in its name, one would expect a great deal of familiarity! It also had that underlying rumble of very friendly competition between peers, not to mention the air of rivalries going back decades. But I also felt something different from the pickling barn at an American fair – a sense of strong pride among the participants, for their effort and knowledge and, I think in a way, craftsmanship as florists. I got the feeling that getting these tulips to split in a desirable way is very much an art, and coaxing them to come together so as to be just the right size and shape to match each other and be ribbon worthy – that requires coaxing, and fussing, and tons of care, not just for one season, but over years. And yet the man I spoke to who had won first prize for a set of three flamed tulips, and spoken to me so knowledgeably of the flowers in the show and how the types were defined, was not just modest but practically embarrassed when I asked him what made his flowers stand out – a far cry from the pride I would have expected from an American in the same situation! Another difference is that for members of this society, there is much sharing that goes on, not just of techniques but literally of the flowers themselves, as members receive bulbs (and give them when they have enough). That community building is very different from what one would see in America, where a prize cake recipe would be a tightly kept secret. I also think the people in this society know they are the last of their breed, as theirs is the last society of its kind in the UK, and for all that they may compete amongst themselves, they also, I think, feel a special bond and a real sense of pride in what they’ve accomplished together.
There was also a raffle table and a wonderful corner where you could get a cup of tea and a slice of cake (heavenly!). In an upper level at the back of the hall there was a display of paintings from Margery Walkington of York (I believe), as well an educational display brought from the Hortus Bulborum. Another table near the entrance held the prizes – cups and silver plates and crystal vases galore, probably about thirty things; and finally there was a table with a cash box, and a few men selling memberships to the club.
I slowly edged along the main table, taking in the lovely blooms and trying to figure out what was what. Breeders were clearly non-broken flowers, but I couldn’t figure out what the difference was between flamed and feathered, or “bizarre,” “bybloemen” and “rose.” I tapped a gentleman wearing a name tag flagging hiim as a “fellow” and asked for some explanation of what was going on. He showed me the difference between “flamed” and “feathered,” using a pencil to open the flower up and point the color inside the flower; how the “bizarre” had gold at the bottom and the “rose” and “bybloemen” white (exteriors pink and purple/brown respectively); then showed how for a “feathered” flower the white or gold base color went up from the base to the center of the petal, with red or purple stains on the edges of the petals (very much delicately drawn like with a feather’s tip); for the flame, the darker color of the flower was a streak up the middle of the petal, and the gold or white was on the edge of the petal, blending and snaking in toward the middle like a painter’s mad mistake. I found them all fascinating, and couldn’t decide which I liked more, flamed or feathered, or bizarre, bybloemen, or rose – all I did know was that, beside them, the poor “breeder” bulbs looked like sad little Billy No-Mates. I never did quite figure out how the breeders figured into the whole business; I heard it said that you had to keep these bulbs separated from the other lest the “infection” that causes the breaking spread from the clean flowers to the dirty. And my tulip history recalls to me that the infected bulbs don’t grow and divide like normal, good tulip bulbs will; instead, over the course of the years, they will wither and die. Also, seeds grown from the broken/infected bulbs -seeds which take seven years to grow to blooming maturity – won’t keep the breaking pattern. Since I joined the society while I was there (only 5 quid for a year, such a deal!), I should hopefully have all of these details worked out before too long. I also got copies of the previous two year’s annual reports, so perhaps within them are my own seeds of knowledge.
After my long visit with Mr. Keith Eyre (for it was he who taught me these things), I then went to chat with Lesley Leijenhorst of Hortus Bulborum (their volunteer webmaster) about their work with old tulips. He had come over from the Netherlands to see the show, but, while enjoying these tulips, he also shared my passion for the old varieties that Hortus Bulborum preserves, and suggested Peter.c.nijssen (www.pcnijssen.nl) as a source for smaller quantities of their bulbs (since I can no longer buy from Old House Gardens). He had been a fan of the Perfecta but had recently started to “sponsor” the Insulinda. He also showed me the contents of this year’s E100 sampler – and mentioned that for a truly rich selection I want might to get the E50 box as well, which contains more recent (1900-1930) varieties. It was really a great chat and left me feeling very excited about planning for next year’s garden.
I then spent probably an hour poking around, admiring the flowers (notes: bronze tulips Bruine Wimpel and James Wild both nice; Sam Barlow with the curly stamen interesting; fringed peach/yellow Lambada quite attractive; Texas Flame and Shirley both attractive in vases; didn’t write down the spiky petalled one despite taking numerous pictures of it), buying a few raffle tickets, looking at the paintings, reading the display, and finally having a cup of tea and a slice of banana nut bread while the prize winners were announced. I wasn’t able to hear them all, they were read so quickly, but I did catch that Judy Baker of Stonemarsh(?) had won both the Jubilee Cup and Cochrane Vase. For the rest of us, our chance to win came with the raffle, which followed immediately; and Amy won a tulip-print apron (which she immediately gave to me). We headed out shortly thereafter, having spent about an hour and a half at the show; it was going to be open again the next day, a special event being done in honor of their 175th anniversary; but I felt we had done very well for our trip and in fact was surprised at how well it had turned out and how hospitable everyone had been. I can’t wait to see what treasures the fall will bring, but in the meantime I must continue my research to understand how I, too, may become worthy of the title of “florist” by producing my own lovely broken tulips.