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Onion-shaped packets full of spring

When someone says "bulbs" to you (though I'm not sure why they would), what do you think of? Light bulbs?

Or would you think of all those scaly, onion-shaped things for sale at garden centers? Daffodils and hyacinths, snowdrops and crocuses, bulbs with long names like chionodoxa or sisyrinchium? Would you think of tulip bulbs?

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A bulb is a kind of parcel, full of promise. It is easy to plant. You just make a hole in the earth. Pop it in. (It helps to know which way up and how deep. Ask a gardener.) Fill the hole with soil. Then wait. And wait. And then wait some more. And just when you've forgotten about them, up they come.

Let's say it's a tulip you want to plant. I'll give you a hint. Tulip bulbs are shaped a little like candle flames, pointed at one end and flat and wide at the other. Here, little stringy bits might be attached. These were last year's roots. They dried out over the summer. The bulb should be planted roots down. Some bulbs (crocuses, for instance) are easy to plant upside-down. But it doesn't matter because crocuses will twist their stems around and up, heading for the light.

Patchwork quilts of blooms

Talking of tulips, though, it is during April and May that the famed tulip fields in the Netherlands (some people call it Holland) burst into dazzling bloom. Tulips are traditionally grown there to sell as bulbs to gardeners. Today tulips are also grown commercially in Britain, Japan, and in parts of the United States.

Tulip fields in the Netherlands look spectacular. The tulips look like a vast patchwork quilt made of flowers that stretches for miles across the flat land. You see lines and strips of vivid color: reds, violets, pinks, white, orange, yellow, deep purple, almost black. They all have grown from onion-shaped packages in the dirt.

So, you've planted a tulip -or even better, a little group of them, in the late fall. Once the warmth of spring arrives, the bulbs start to grow. It doesn't matter what plants or weeds are growing over their heads, they push their way through.

Now to get a bit technical.

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Not all flowering plants grow from bulbs. Many grow only from seeds. The seeds develop from the flower.

But plants that grow from bulbs, like tulips, are very ingenious. They have two ways to increase themselves. Tulip flowers will make tulip seeds. But tulip bulbs will also grow little bulbs on their sides. The little bulbs are called "offsets." The offset bulbs grow until they are ready to grow on their own. The plants from the "baby" bulbs are exactly like the parent plant. (Scientists would call them "clones.") With most tulips it takes two or three years, sometimes longer, before the new bulbs will flower. Patience again.

Now for the complicated part.

As with all garden plants, tulips were once wild. They grew on hillsides in places like Turkey, Greece, Iran, and Afghanistan. In fact, they still do. There are about 100 varieties of these wild tulips. They are called "species" tulips. Some you can buy and grow at home. Wild tulips are usually smaller than the tulips you're used to. Their simple, single flowers come out earlier than those of the hybrid tulips. Hybrid tulips, or "cultivars," have been especially bred by gardeners. Cultivars are the tulips you most often see in gardens.

Breeding new tulips

New forms and colors of tulips have been bred for centuries. But to get a new tulip, you must grow it from seed.

Today, out of some 5,600 kinds of cultivar (gardener-bred) tulips, about 2,600 are available for sale. Quite a choice! The ones not available were fashionable once, but are now part of the long history of tulip cultivation.

Species tulips produce seeds easily. Cultivars don't usually produce any seeds unless they are carefully pollinated by hand. But while it takes only two or three years for a bulb to produce an offset that will flower, it takes up to seven years for a tulip grown from seed to bloom. Even then, the breeder may only find two or three plants in thousands that are different enough to grow commercially and sell. Once a new cultivar appears, it is multiplied by bulbs, not by seed.

Timing is everything

If you go to Holland to see the tulip fields, time your visit wisely. There are parks where you can see tulips flowering like the dickens. But the commercial fields, where tulip growers raise bulbs to sell, are not sentimental places. When the flowers are just at their best, what happens? They are all beheaded! (The blooms become compost.) This makes the plant put all its strength into making new bulbs, instead of wasting it on silly things like flowers!

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