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hubbard tulips

Bethany Hubbard/MEDILL

Every spring tulips line the Mag Mile, filling the city with color.


Tulips slumber through chilly spring

by Bethany Hubbard
April 29, 2011


hubbard blossoms

Bethany Hubbard/MEDILL

On some shaded blocks of the city, the tulips are still in hiding.

hubbard flowers

Bethany Hubbard/MEDILL

For many the appearance of flowers in the city is one of the first signs of spring.

Related Links

Tulips on the Magnificent MileGarfield Conservatory's TulipManiaTulip Time FestivalChicago Botanic GardenGethsemane Garden Center

Tips for planting tulips


1. Expect to pay about 70 cents per bulb.
2. You can plant tulip bulbs as long as the ground is not frozen.
3. Put the bulb in a hole, pointy side up, that is two to three times the depth of its height.
4. Soil should be rich in organic matter and well fertilized.
5. Soil should drain easily.
6. Different varieties bloom at different times – early, mid and late spring. – but you can plant them all at the same time.

Tips courtesy of Christine Garcia of Gethsemane Garden Center, Chicago.


With May right around the corner, tourists are flocking to Michigan Avenue for shopping, gourmet dining and the tulips. Thousands of blossoms turn the Magnificent Mile into a Dutch fantasy.

But this year, the cooler, cloudier weather is keeping many of the famous flowers from blooming on cue, delaying the annual tulip craze.

“All bulbs are on a late season this year because it’s been so cold,” said Al Kamikow, master gardener at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “They depend on the warm weather and sunshine.”

Kamikow, who operated his own nursery for 41 years, and has worked at the garden for 21 years, said that the delay might mean a wait of up to 10 days.

Amy Seeley, a meteorologist for the Chicago division of the National Weather Service, said that the average temperature for this April is actually only 0.5 degrees below normal.

For shaded Chicago blocks, this minor drop coupled with a string of overcast days has kept the tulips in hiding.

Tulips are abloom with history, though.

In the early 1600s, Tulipmania took the Netherlands by storm. People bought bulbs in advance while they matured in the ground with the hope that the value would increase as the bulbs grew. Prices skyrocketed, and the Dutch were certain that tulips would lead the way to wealth.

“It used to be tulips were so prized for their beauty that people would spend thousands and thousands of dollars on just one bulb,” said Christine Garcia, who has worked at Gethsemane Garden Center in Edgewater for 11 years.

Garcia said that people were especially eager to purchase Rembrandt bulbs whose streaks of color were originally caused by a virus. The “tulip bubble” of the 1600s reportedly traded the most prized bulbs at six times an average worker’s yearly income.

Eventually the fury ended, and the value of the bulbs plummeted in a major economic crash. Still, tulips remain a huge part of Holland’s culture.

The Garfield Park Conservatory hosts "TulipMania" every May, its own version of Holland’s famous craze. Each year the tulips used throughout the city are given to residents. People line up early in the morning on the designated day to receive a piece of Chicago’s flower history.

“Because of the weather, we haven’t been able to pinpoint the week yet,” said Mattie Wilson, volunteer coordinator for the conservatory.

More than 300 people attended the event last year, some lining up as early as 6:30 a.m. to ensure that they received a portion of the coveted city bulbs. Each person receives a bag with about a dozen.

“I think people are excited because they [the tulips] come back every year,” Wilson said. “You plant it and it just pops up next year.”

In Holland, Mich., tulips are the main attraction every spring at the city’s annual Tulip Time Festival, which celebrates Dutch heritage as well as community pride. Executive director Gwen Auwerda said that she isn’t too concerned about the weather for the event, scheduled from May 7-14 this year.

“The tulips do really enjoy and like the cooler weather as they get ready to blossom,” she said, adding that a few hot days are needed to start the process. “The weather definitely does have an impact. You just hope that your weather’s going to cooperate.”

Auwerda said that the festival launched more than 80 years ago in 1929 when a biology teacher initiated the planting of the first tulips. Now, hundreds of thousands of tulips line Holland’s streets and sidewalks.

“I just think they’re a very beautiful delicate flower,” Auwerda said, adding that they symbolize the start of spring.

Garcia said that tulips are actually very user friendly.

“For the most part they are very easy to grow,” she said. “You dig a hole, put the bulb in pointy side up, you forget about it all winter long, and they should come up in the spring.”

Garcia said that the best time to plant bulbs is in fall when temperatures are cool. The ideal month used to be September, but rising temperatures make October and November better options.

Not all tulips are perennials. If you want tulips that come back every year, Garcia recommends Greigii and Kaufmanniana bulbs for early blooming, and Darwin Hybrids for mid-spring blooming.

Whenever the tulips do hit full bloom on the Mag Mile, people are sure to come witness their arrival.

“They’re very attractive,” Kamikow said. “They’re usually one of the first things that come up after a boring winter. People are raring to go, just like in fall - they’re raring to quit.”