3 April 1998

FLAME & FEATHER GLORY OF OLD ENGLISH TULIPS…

A UNIQUE tulip with flowers like balls of flame will soon be blooming in Wakefield. The old English tulip is a link with the time when the bulb arrived in Europe from Turkey in the 16th century.

They made such an impact in Holland that a feverish trade in bulbs developed, leading to single specimens selling for £1500. In England many societies were formed to specialise in showing and breeding this new flower from the east. All have now faded away except in Wakefield, Yorks, where the bloom lingered on and today has undergone a revival.

Until a few years ago there were only a handful of growers of these old tulips which could easily have become extinct. But membership of the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society, founded in 1836, has now grown to well over 2000 and includes enthusiasts from other parts of the country.

Virtually all tulips grown in our gardens today are Dutch or Flemish. They are prized for their massed, colourful displays. Only a few thousand English tulips challenge this dominance and they are grown for the individual beauty of the blooms.

English tulips are classed as bybloemens (black, blue or purple or white), bizarres (mahogany, scarlet or brown on yellow) and roses (various shades of red on milky cream). A breeder is a tulip of uniform colour which has yet to break into the exotic "flame" and "feather" patterns characteristic of these bulbs.

There are still some 30 varieties, which is only a tenth of what used to be grown. Annie McGregor and George Hayward have been lost, Sam Barlow is still popular and Wakefield and Akers Flamed have been introduced since the war. The oldest, Habit de Noce, was first raised in about 1780.

Society secretary Wendy Akers says there are records of tulips similar to those in Wakefield being grown in Britain in the 1570s. She dreams of getting another tulip society started somewhere so that ideas, views, visits and bulbs could be exchanged.

But a big step was taken recently when these rare tulips appeared at the Harrogate Spring Flower Show, one of the main floral events, for the first time.

Stately homes have helped promote English tulips. The Societys president is the Marquess of Hartington, son of the Duke of Devonshire. He has introduced them to Chatsworth House.

The Wakefield Society has its annual show in May. In the old days prizes included copper kettles and mens hats but now it is trophies and token sums of money, which are usually handed back.

Membership costs £4 a year. Benefits include a small stock of bulbs to get newcomers started. Contact Wendy Akers, 70, Wrenthorpe Lane, Wrenthorpe, Wakefield Yorks. (01924-375843).

Tom Montgomery

English tulips on the show bench (left). They are the link with the arrival of the bulb from Turkey in the 16th century. Known as florists tulips, they are grown for the individual beauty of the blooms.

The three classes of old English tulips.