Dwarf Tulipa-PBS and Alpine Topic of the Week

Jim McKenney jimmckenney@starpower.net
Fri, 20 Feb 2004 11:14:46 PST
Very nice (and very provocative) introduction, Mark. I agree with much that
you say, but I enthusiastically and cordially disagree with your assessment
of big hybrids, either of Tulipa or Crocus. Since the TOW is Dwarf Tulipa,
I'll post my comments on non-dwarf Tulipa separately. 

Later this year I'll try to post some photos of an old (maybe as much as
thirty year old) clump of Tulipa whittallii which now annually puts up
hundreds of leaves (and very few flowers; it grows in the shade). The
related (some would say conspecific) T. orphanidea has been good here, but
does not spread in that way. A tulip received as Tulipa stellata chrysantha
many years ago is an accomplished spreader and survivor here.  I've seen
similar clumps of Tulipa sylvestris in other local gardens. I would not
hesitate to recommend these to other gardeners in similar climates.

I couldn't agree less about your comments about what rock gardeners prefer.
I'm a rock gardener -of sorts, but not the sort who measures everything and
tosses anything over eight inches high. But then, I don't have a real rock
garden. In my experience, most rock gardeners don't. What they call a rock
garden is the rock garden bed, so to speak. When the rock garden craze
really bloomed in England a century ago, a proper rock garden (like a
proper garden) was something big enough to walk through, something which
very literally imitated a walk through an alpine meadow. They were, so to
speak, alpine stroll gardens. These gardens were big enough to accommodate
any tulip, and the rock gardeners of a century ago were eager planters of
the big wild tulips then being introduced from central Asia. 

I don't think most American gardeners have either the space of the
inclination to build a "real" rock garden. When Henri Correvon visited the
US (in the 1920's I think) he visited Louise Beebe Wilder's rock garden and
made a somewhat dismissive comment to the effect that it was nice but small. 
Most of us have to be satisfied with something bigger than a trough but
smaller by far than the real thing. And in my part of the world, where
exposed rock is not a typical part of the landscape, rock gardens of all
but the highest degree of sophistication look like sore thumbs: like a
Cadillac parked on the lawn in front of a subdivision rambler. They just
don't look right, even when planted with the most rarefied of dwarf plants
(plants which the majority of people, if it notices them at all, probably
thinks they are weeds). 

The rock gardeners you seem to be referring to are the space-starved modern
rock gardeners who set aside a few square yards of rock heap and within
that area manage to see glacial till, a moraine, assorted chasms and
crevices (one for European plants, a few inches away another for Himalayan
plants), and scree. If they are handy with artificially moved water (in my
opinion the bane of many an otherwise good garden) there may be water falls
and other aqueous gizmos. As for plants, nothing much bigger than a Draba
need apply. And thus the need for tiny tulips and crocus. And, as far as
I'm concerned, the result is proportionally reduced enjoyment. 

So let's not bash the big tulips and crocus. And please! We all don't
prefer the so-called species - certainly not to the exclusion of the
"inflated Dutch crocus". "Absolutely not"? In this garden, absolutely yes!
Unless what you are growing has been collected in the wild, there is a good
chance that your "species" are in fact infra-specific hybrids. And for that
matter, what sense does it make to attach a different significance to a
hybrid done by a Dutchman rather than by a bumblebee?  It's the same DNA
getting scrambled in either case. Those people whose spiritual pride
attaches a different significance to the actions of man - as opposed to
those of the rest of nature - baffle me. I'm convinced that the vaunted
distinction made between species and hybrids is often bogus. If two nominal
species cross and produce fertile offspring, we traditionally say the
offspring are hybrids. What we should be saying is that fertile offspring
are evidence that the parents are conspecific. This simple observation
tells us more than the DNA will ever tell us, and it tells it unequivocally. 

Wow! All of this over a few flowers!

Thanks again, Mark, for such a stimulating first volley. 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland zone 7 where snowdrops are finally blooming and
the first winter aconites have broken ground.

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