I bought a bunch of 10 tulips for $6.99 the other day and stuck them on my desk. One day, the buds were tight and pale, the next about the size of a plum and similar in color. They weren't the slinky, pastel French tulips that high-end florists coo over, but they lifted my spirits, lasted for days and brought a glimpse of spring.
I picked them up at a grocery story a couple of blocks from the office. Nothing strange about that, but here's the weird thing: I may well have seen the same bunch being grown and gathered a few days earlier in an enormous greenhouse just outside Culpeper, Va. I say "may" because one bunch was hard to see amid something like 1 million tulips in hydroponic cultivation at the glazed quarters of a company called Fresh Tulips USA, in Stevensburg. Here, hiding in plain sight, is one of the largest tulip factories in the world, and, yes, I did feel a bit like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory as a Dutchman named Coen Haakman put on the hat of Willy Wonka. Figuratively.
It probably helps to be Dutch to undertake an enterprise that involves the mass production of the tulip. It's in the blood: Greenhouse growers in the Netherlands raise 1.5 billion cut tulips a year, even if fewer of those blooms today are making it to the American marketplace.
With the rise of high-volume supermarket floral departments, Haakman and his business partners figured that by bringing Dutch methods and techniques to the mid-Atlantic, they could meet consumer demand for cheap and cheerful tulips while cutting out middlemen and the delays of shipping flowers from abroad.
He came to Virginia in 2004 with a plan to grow 5 million tulips a year. Seven years later, he and his Dutch grower, Hans Meester, and a workforce of around 100 churn out 45 million in five adjoining greenhouse bays covering eight acres.
In the dead of winter, it's not a bad place to be, especially with the curious overhead lines of hanging Boston ferns. Big and fluffy, they number 32,000 and function to shade and cool the greenhouse while generating additional income through sales. Early February is high season; the glass houses are empty only in high summer when it's too hot for plants, especially tulips.
The company ships about a million tulips a week to stores such as Whole Foods Market, Wegmans and Giant Food, in markets as far west as Dallas, north to Boston and south to Miami. This week the production more than doubles for an annual peak of tulips in three colors: red, white and pink. These are cupid's hues around St. Valentine's Day, and Haakman is counting on legions of swains choosing tulips over the pricier and more predictable bouquet of red roses. For plant geeks like myself, I should add that these varities are all Triumph tulips, by name Ile de France, Jumbo Pink and White Marvel.
With tulips, as in affairs of the heart and politics, timing is everything. The task is made somewhat easier for the 43-year-old general manager by the fact that the bulbs themselves are farmed by sister companies back in the Netherlands, as well as in France and Chile.
In Europe, new bulbs are harvested in July, but then the art of climate-controlled storage takes over. First the bulbs are kept warm enough for next year's embryonic tulip to form. But to trick the flowers into greenhouse bloom - gardeners call it forcing - the bulbs must be chilled and remain so for 16 to 18 weeks, including the two-week voyage to the United States.
Haakman shows me the room where the shipped boxes are stored, and suddenly the air is filled with the roar of a fan and the blast of cold air. Massed tulip bulbs can produce enough ethylene gas to mess up their eventual flowering, hence the frequent forced ventilation.
After the dry bulbs have initiated a little root growth, they are taken out of cold storage and "potted up" for growth, except there is no pot and no soil. As the bulbs roll down a conveyor belt, workers rogue out any rotten ones and then place the healthy ones, 100 at a time, on a horizontal board. A peg spears the base of each bulb, allowing the board to sit in a black plastic tray where the bulbs grow. Lined up on the greenhouse floor, the trays are filled with water and a little liquid fertilizer, and the bulbs shoot up in the 65-degree temperatures, lowered to the 50s at night. Robotic watering arms move across the acres of trays several times a day to keep the growing bulbs happy.
The stems are harvested just as the buds begin to show color. After a night in cold storage, they go to a bouquet production room where the tulips are bundled, tied, de-bulbed and wrapped.
This process may seem convoluted: Imagine the logistics of having bulbs in various stages of forcing for 40 weeks of the year. The scheduling is further complicated by the fact the bulbs take 30 days to bloom in December but just 15 days by April.
Bulbs from Chile kick off production in September, followed by ones from France and the Dutch province of Zeeland.
"The Dutch have absolutely figured out the science of timing," said Sally Ferguson of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center.
What does this local mass production mean for humble consumers who just want a touch of spring in their kitchen or apartment window? Haakman says that at least three links have been removed in the production chain, the carbon footprint is lowered all around and the flowers reach the marketplace about five days earlier than before.
With spring still six weeks away, that sounds pretty good to me.
How to keep tulips and other cut flowers fresh:
-Choose bunches whose buds are showing color but are still tight.
-As soon as possible, get the flowers into fresh water.
-Cut the bottoms of the stems at an angle. It is not necessary to do this under water.
-Keep leaves out of the water.
-Preservative is helpful but not necessary.
-Don't allow the water to drop below the stems.
-Change the water before it gets cloudy, at least by the third day. Take the opportunity to remove faded or damaged blooms.
-Recut stems if they have browned or gone soft.
-Keep the vase in the coolest setting possible and away from heat registers.
-Keep the flowers away from apples, pears and bananas, which speed flower aging.