It is that time of year again. You know it is coming when the, for some reason, less admired daffodils start blooming along the side of the road on Highway 20. It’s tulip season.
For those not acquainted with this annual event in the nearby Skagit Valley, I will first present the fun story explaining how the Skagit Valley became the premier location for growing the gorgeous, universally loud, and kind to those with allergies, tulip.
For those new to the area, buckle up, tulip mania is serious business, and if you have never seen the riotous fields of raucous color, this blog will be your primer on being “in the know.”
First, the tulip has a strange backstory. Much like the ups and downs of the real estate market, tulips were once so coveted that for a brief time in history, the Dutch economy revolved around and almost was destroyed by this seemingly innocuous bulb.
While many people might be aware that the tulip is universally associated with the Netherlands, what was news to me, and might be to you, is that the tulip originated in the Tian Shan mountain ranges in Central Asia. After travelers in the time of the Ottoman Empire encountered its beauty there, the tulip was brought to the Netherlands, where it quickly became synonymous with windmills and wooden shoes. (Mental Itch)
In the mid-1500s, Carolus Clusius, a botanist who studied and taught at the University of Leiden, discovered that tulips could create streaks of variegated color in their blooms. Clusius termed this unique botanical event “tulip breaking.” (Mental Itch) It was the distinctive streaking (or breaking) that caused tulip mania.
Today, we know that tulip breaking is caused by a specific virus that infects the bulbs, but in the 1500s, when Clusius first discovered this trait, it was unknown how it occurred. So great was the desire of the Dutch to have multicolored streaks in their tulips that the fever for collecting and trading in tulip bulbs began.
The price of tulip bulbs became so great that it was recorded in 1620 that an entire townhouse was offered in exchange for ten bulbs of Semper Augustus, a tulip famed for looking like a candy cane. The owner of the bulbs declined the trade. (Laskow, 2022)
The mania reached a record high in 1637 when a bulb called Switsers increased in value by nearly 1000% from previous years. Around this point, the Dutch realized the price of tulips had become too high, and prices quickly started to drop. (Mental Itch)
This spelled financial collapse for those who had gambled their life savings and invested in the tulip. The drop in value happened so rapidly that the Dutch government had to step in and financially assist those facing certain ruin. (Mental Itch)
Now that you know the backstory of this weird chapter in human/tulip history, let’s look at how the tulip became synonymous with traffic congestion, long-range telephoto lenses, circling cars looking for parking spots, and even lawsuits in the Skagit Valley.
The first recorded person to order tulip bulbs from Holland to plant in the Skagit Valley is credited to a woman named Mary Stewart. Mrs. Stewart moved from Ohio to Samish Island in early 1900, reportedly seeking a “healthier climate.” (Meyers Signs, 2023)
In 1906 when her first batch of tulips arrived by boat, it was recorded that most of the community came to witness the unloading of what most citizens saw as a bit of frivolity. Why would anyone plant something that one could not eat? (Meyers Signs, 2023)
However, Mrs. Meyers had bigger plans than planting flowers in her yard to memorialize her late mother. Soon, Mrs. Meyers was growing entire fields of tulips, mostly in Bellingham and always for the resale of the bulbs. So agreeable was the tulip bulb with our maritime climate that Mrs. Meyers quickly became the premier grower of tulip bulbs in the Pacific Northwest.
After outgrowing their original 40 acres near La Conner and tired of the commute to Bellingham, the Stewarts eventually purchased 250 acres in 1930 in Mt. Vernon. Here, the Stewart family started what is now known as the first tulip farm in the Skagit Valley. It was called the Tulip Grange Bulb Farm.
After Mrs. Stewart’s husband Sam passed in 1972 at 69, the farm was sold to The American Bulb Company. Just 12 years later, the first tulip festival was held. (Meyers Signs, 2023)
Today, according to the Washington State University Skagit Valley Extension Service, 75% of tulips grown commercially come not from the Netherlands but right here in the Skagit Valley. With over 1000 acres and 75 million cut flowers, the tulip shows no sign of slowing down in popularity. (Washington State Cooperative Extension)
One can imagine that competition for tourist dollars is fierce during the tulip festival. So much so that recently a lawsuit was filed over competing farms not honoring understood rules of conduct over not trying to steal customers. (Stone, 2023)
Bad blood aside, the annual tulip festival is undoubtedly a draw for those who need to breathe in (at least with their eyes, as tulips are mostly fragrance-free) the first signs of spring.
If you want to participate in the festival, plan to spend the entire day. The traffic jams are as legendary as the spectacle. Also, be prepared to pay to park in one of the many lots offered at each farm. While there is a bit of walking necessary to access the fields, handicap-friendly gardens are also offered at many of the venues.
For a complete list of the farms and a map on how best to plan your visit, please consider following this link https://www.parentmap.com/article/skagit-valley-tulip-festival-2023-family-guide
As you gaze at the incredible variety offered at each farm, look for the famous candy cane-colored tulips and remember that an entire economy almost collapsed due to its stunning beauty!
See you out there.
Alamy. (n.d.). Alamy. Retrieved April 17, 2023, from Stitsers Tulip Image: https://www.alamy.com/neha-tulip-book-p003-switsers-image402241673.html
Laskow, S. (2022, July 12). Atlas Obscura. Retrieved from The Most Beautiful Tulip in History Cost as Much as a House: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/semper-augustus-tulip-netherlands
Mental Itch. (n.d.). Mental Itch. Retrieved from The Strange and Unusual History of Tulip Mania: https://mentalitch.com/the-strange-and-unusual-history-of-tulip-mania/
Meyers Signs. (2023). Meyers Signs. Retrieved from Tales From the Magic Skagit: Our Lady of the Tulips: https://meyersign.com/2021/03/tales-from-the-magic-skagit-our-lady-of-the-tulips
Oakley, J. (2004, March 18). History Link. Retrieved from Skagit Valley-Thumbnail History: https://www.historylink.org/file/5663
Ryu, W.-S. (2017). Science Direct. Retrieved April 17, 2023, from Tulip Breaking Virus: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/tulip-breaking-virus
Stone, B. (2023, April 7). GoSkagit. Retrieved from Tulip Town sues new tulip garden, alleging deceptive practices: https://www.goskagit.com/growskagit/tulip-town-sues-new-tulip-garden-alleging-deceptive-practices
Univeristy of Leiden. (n.d.). Univeristy of Leiden. Retrieved April 17, 2023, from About: https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en
Washington State Cooperative Extension. (n.d.). Washington State Cooperative Extension. Retrieved from Guided Tulip Tours: https://extension.wsu.edu/skagit/mg/tulip-tours/