Last fall, Home Hardware sold four million Canada 150 tulips across the country. Intended to mimic the colours of the Canadian flag, the bulbs were bred to produce white flowers with central red “flames” or vertical streaks. Gardeners snapped them up in droves, and most outlets had completely sold out within a week or two.
But early reviews from some of our warmer regions — where tulips are already in full flower — have been mixed, to say the least. Some gardeners have complained that the colourful flames of their Canada 150 tulips are pink and not red. Others have shared photos on social media of yellow tulips with pink streaks, pure white or bright orange flowers, and in some cases, the bulbs have come up “blind” — in other words, lots of leaves but nary a bloom.
I must admit that I’ve harboured private reservations about the Canada 150 tulip ever since its rather grandiose introduction last year.
To begin with, I was uncomfortable with some of the promotional material that claimed that the Canada 150 tulip had been expressly bred in the Netherlands to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial. The fact of the matter is that white tulips with red flames have been around for 400 years, and I puzzled over what set this new cultivar apart from existing varieties with the requisite colouration. Furthermore, no one seemed to know what division this new tulip belonged to (there are 15) or what its correct cultivar name was — “Canada 150” is simply a convenient retail moniker.
As well, the timing seemed a little off to me: From hybridizing a new tulip cultivar to producing four million sales-ready bulbs is a process that usually takes many years. Has Home Hardware been working on this project with Dutch breeders for the past eight to 10 years? Possibly, but to me it smacks more of a quickly concocted marketing scheme to cash in on 150 years of Confederation.
My final quibble with the Canada 150 tulip is that when planted en masse, from a distance the red-and-white blooms read visually as pink; the same is true if you see them from your car as you speed by a large display. Last autumn, I advised gardeners to plant solid red tulips with solid white ones in generous side-by-side drifts, or alternatively, to intersperse dots of red tulips in beds of predominantly white-flowered cultivars if they were aiming for the “flag” effect.
But for displays destined to be admired up close — where bi-coloured red and white tulips would be desirable — bulb supplier Botanus in Langley, British Columbia, offered the temporarily renamed Triumph tulip “Canadian Celebration” (syn. Tulipa ‘Happy Generation’) and the wonderfully ornate Parrot tulip ‘Estella Rijnveld’ at patriotically discounted prices last autumn.
Although the production of tulip bulbs in the Netherlands is a highly mechanized process, most bulb experts agree that mistakes must have been made in the field when the bulbs were being harvested last summer. And as more tulips come into flower across Canada, it will be interesting to see if this amounts to a minor — or major — gaffe.
And then suddenly two days ago, in a weirdly well-timed twist, three companies in the Netherlands collaborated in the unveiling of a new, advanced DNA-sequencing technology that is sophisticated enough to take on the genus Tulipa together with its 100 species and 400 years of largely undocumented breeding baggage. It will be fascinating to see what mysteries this research unravels.
Meanwhile, it would appear that Ottawa’s National Capital Commission planted 300,000 Canada 150 tulips last fall in anticipation of the 65th annual Canadian Tulip Festival — the largest of its kind in the world. Somewhat ironically, the festival’s slogan this year is “One Tulip, One Canada.”
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