"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
 
Lady Tulips (and Plant Humanities)

Lady Tulips (and Plant Humanities)

From “Rock Garden Plants for the Mid-South” in A Garden of One’s Own by Elizabeth Lawrence:

T. clusiana, the lady tulip, blooms the first of April and lasts for a long time. It is one of the most permanent things in the garden if it is left undisturbed. The slender buds, striped red and white like peppermint candy, never open until late in the day and not at all on cloudy days, but this does not make them less charming.”

From Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants In Your Garden by Noel Kingsbury:

“Tulips have traditionally featured in Persian and Turkish poetry, often as a token or symbol of love. They frequently appear in the visual arts of these cultures too, such as in miniature paintings and tiles….

“The single flower, on top of its straight stem was seen, in the Ottoman world, to represent the letter alif (for ‘Allah’) and therefore the unity and uniqueness of the monotheistic god….

Beyond decoration, there is little herbal or other use for tulips, apart from being eaten, for example as a famine food by the Dutch in World War II. Today, the tulip has become very much a Dutch symbol — indeed, along with the windmill and wooden clogs, something of a cliché. The country is a major exporter of both bulbs and cut flowers; visiting the tulips fields in the Haarlem area is an important part of the Netherlands’ tourism industry.”

From The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam:

“Each yellow tulip … has a dark brown pupil at the base of the cup, and to look into it is to feel that the flower is returning the gift of attention — strengthening one’s existence that way.”


I had seen these Lady Tulips at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens earlier this year, noticing them late one morning under full sun and having trouble getting decent photos because there was so much light reflecting off the bright yellow flower petals that I threw out all the photos I took. On a subsequent trip, though, I took another crack at a photoshoot, waiting for the sun to dip behind some fast moving clouds to help my exposures.

In the first two shots below, you can see how the unopened buds are deep red with yellow stripes, yet the opened flower displays very little red (except at the base of a few petals) as its highly saturated yellow takes over.

You might gather from the three quotes I opened this post with that I did some tulip research, and found myself in gardening books, history books, and novels for tulip references. Tulips have quite a long and complex environmental and cultural history — extending from tenth century Persia, to Western Europe in the 1600s, to the present day.

I also spent some time with a new resource I recently learned about — an amazing compendium of information about plants and their impact on human societies. The site — Plant Humanities Lab — was recently launched (in March, 2021) and features “plant narratives” on its homepage that provide original research into the cultural significance of plants or plant families through multimedia presentations. If you are interested in interdisciplinary work on plants, history, and culture, please take a look at the site, treat yourself to the story of how boxwoods took over the world, and check back with the site often. There’s an introduction to the project here: Introducing the Plant Humanities Lab; and you can use the search tool on the lab’s homepage to find an enormous amount of information, media, and imagery about plants and their histories.

Like most tulips — so often photographed as fields full of flowers — these Lady Tulips grow very close together, substantial masses of flowers that seem to be competing for the light. They also seemed to compete for the attentions of The Photographer by waving back and forth in the breeze, and I did manage to find a few I could isolate for some decent closeups. I couldn’t help but think that the height variations you see in the photographs below were arranged by the plant on purpose, as if some blooms deferred to other blooms for the good of the whole field. In the last photo below, you may get the sense I had of all the blooms: perfectly formed flowers atop long stems, nearly floating above the grass and leaves filling the region I photographed.

Select any image if you would like to see larger versions in a slideshow; and here’s a link to the full-sized version of the last image (my favorite) where you can get a good look at the range of color and detail.


Thanks for reading and taking a look!

6 Comments

    1. Dale

      I missed the first round of tulips, the “regular” ones … so was glad to catch these Lady Tulips still blooming. They seem to bloom later in the spring, and are still going strong so they may end out in a post on here again.

      Thanks for the comment! Happy Spring to you too!

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