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Feature Story

The tulip: Moving on up

This bulb flower’s popularity in the United States rises as year-round production and worldwide markets ensure availability.

By Monica Humbard

Customers prize cut tulips for their beauty and ability to add style to any room or occasion. Super Floral Retailing talked to tulip experts to learn about trends in production and when to get the best prices. And on Page 16, see how long a typical bunch of tulips lasts, given proper care and handling.

it begins with the bulbs
To understand the cut tulip market, one must first understand how tulips are grown and the expertise necessary to grow them. Sally Ferguson, director of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center in Danby, Vt., the North American information office of the International Flower Bulb Centre (IFBC), says the quality starts in the bulbs, which come primarily from Holland.
According to the IFBC, Dutch tulip bulbs are exported from September through December and account for one-third of the total export value for bulbs out of Holland. More than 3,000 varieties of tulips are registered, but only around 100 are cultivated on a commercial basis.
Although high-quality tulip bulbs are essential for cultivating superior cut tulips, growers also must have the expertise to recognize when they should harvest cut tulips. If they are cut too early, their color will be less vibrant and the tulips may not open. However, if they are cut too late, the tulips may have more height and more vibrant color but some of the vase life is sacrificed.
Jeff Serafini, general manager of Fischer & Page Ltd. in New York City, who has spent more than 20 years as a flower wholesaler and importer, cautions against purchasing cut tulips that seem to be available at an unusually great price. They could have been cut too early or too late. If tulips appear to have exceptional color but are open more than usual, they probably will fade quickly in a warm home during the winter months. They could have as little as two days of vase life.

peak season
Cut tulips are available year-round, but their peak production season runs from mid-December through early May, and not all types are available during the entire time span. Some are available earlier, but others can be found only later in the season. Ms. Ferguson says most varieties are available from January through April and include single, double, parrot and peony types.
Mr. Serafini says cut tulips come in two grades. The less-expensive grade isn’t always available. Its prime season is mid- to late-spring (March and April). During this peak season, availability is high and the cost is at its lowest. This grade is not available in the off season.
The better grade is available year-round. Mr. Serafini says the price for this grade doesn’t fluctuate much throughout the year.
  tulip food and treatments

Suppliers offer flower foods and treatments designed specifically for bulb flowers. Here are products that will keep tulips healthy and vibrant.
• Floralife, Inc. offers Floralife® Bulb Fresh-Cut Food, a clear fresh flower food formulated to hydrate and nourish cut bulb flowers while helping to prevent premature leaf yellowing. Specially formulated to work best on tulips, lilies, Alstroemerias, Irises and Freesias, it also can be used with mixed bouquets and all flower varieties in all water qualities, and it remains clear in all water types.
• Chrysal USA offers Clear Bulb Flower Food, which contains active ingredients for enhanced performance of all cut bulb flowers and can be used in both mixed and monobotanical arrangements containing fresh cut bulb flowers. (It causes no problems with nonbulb flowers.) Available in sachets for consumer use, it increases the life of bulb flowers such as tulips, lilies, Irises, Freesias, Gladioli and more while preventing leaf yellowing and tip burning. All florets open, foliage stays green and colors remain vivid to the end, and its clear formulation makes it ideal for crystal vases, keeping vase water clean, clear and odorless.
• Chrysal USA also offers Chrysal Tulip Food, which helps keep tulip stems straight and maintain the foliage’s healthy green appearance. Chrysal Tulip Food comes in sachets for consumer use.
• Chrysal USA’s Bulb T-Bags are for store display and wet-pack shipping. They keep the water clear and flowing for five to six days at room temperature. The bags contain hormones to maximize vase life, ensure full floret development and keep foliage vibrant green.
• Chrysal USA also offers bulb treatments. Chrysal BVB is a new-generation grower product that corrects the imbalance of plant growth regulators in cut tulips, lilies, Irises and Alstroemerias, preventing premature leaf yellowing and encouraging bud opening, better flower quality and longer vase life. Chrysal BVB Plus, for tulips only, prevents elongation in tulip stems.



the off season
The off season for tulips in the United States, Canada and Holland is from July through November. Ms. Ferguson says the most difficult time to get cut tulips is June through August.
To make cut tulips available year-round, growers trick the plants into believing it is winter by keeping them in a controlled refrigerated environment until harvest time for the off season. Growers refer to this practice as “forcing,” and the flowers that result often are called “ice tulips.”
The tulips tend to be smaller and tighter because they are cut sooner. Mr. Serafini explains that one day in the distribution chain during these summer months—with more light and higher temperatures—is equivalent to two to three days in winter or spring; therefore, to maintain maximum vase life as the tulips continue to develop during shipping, they are cut earlier in the warm off season.

The majority of off-season tulips are a mixture of domestic product and imports from Holland. Availability is an issue during the off season because not all types and varieties of tulips can be forced.
Another option during the off season is cut tulips from the Southern Hemisphere, primarily New Zealand. The seasons there are opposite of other tulip markets. Ms. Ferguson says the peak time for tulips in New Zealand is July through September.

one supplier’s solution
To maintain a good year-round mixture of cut tulips, The Sun Valley Group in Arcata, Calif., imports bulbs from around the world. From January through Mother’s Day, it uses Dutch bulbs. Bruce Brady, the company’s business development manager, says during this period, both bulb and production costs are at their lowest, keeping the price of cut tulips to a minimum. During the summer months, however, when Sun Valley forces Dutch bulbs, prices tend to rise because of higher bulb and production costs. In August, Sun Valley uses bulbs from the Southern Hemisphere, which also come with higher costs. During late November and into December, Sun Valley imports French bulbs until Dutch bulbs are in season again.

  tulip care

For maximum vase life, buy cut bulb flowers when they are in tight bud form with just a hint of color showing. Unpack flowers from their shipping boxes, and begin processing them immediately upon arrival.
Step 1 Rinse the flower stems, and recut them to aid in water and nutrient uptake. Remove any leaves that would fall below the water line.
Step 2 Place flowers into either a properly prepared standard flower-food solution or a nutrient solution specifically formulated for bulb flowers (see “Tulip Food and Treatments,” Page 15). Solutions should be mixed with nonfluoridated water. Bulb flowers should be placed into cold nutrient solutions—either prepared with cold water or made with warm water and refrigerated ahead of time—to reduce the chance that flowers will “blow open.”
Step 3 Store the flowers upright in the cooler at a temperature between 32 F and 35 F. Tulips will bend toward the light. As long as any light in the cooler is from above, tulips will extend in that direction. But if light is from another direction, tulips should be stored in a dark area of the cooler and shielded from the light. Some care experts recommend leaving them in their sleeves during storage to help avoid such stem bending and elongating.


market comparison
Although most tulip bulbs come from Holland, where growers have tulip production down to a science, the cut flowers are grown in several areas around the world, including Holland, the United States, Canada, France and New Zealand. David Caras, assistant director of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center, estimates that 90 percent of imported tulips sold in the United States come from Holland.
But in recent years, cut tulips have become the No. 1 cut flower crop produced in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Floriculture Crops 2006 Summary. U.S. producers sold 142.6 million stems of tulips in 2006, the summary says, compared with 125.4 million in 2005, a 13.7 percent increase. The No. 2 crop in 2006 was Gerberas, followed closely by lilies.
For the mass market, cut tulips in the United States are grown primarily on the West Coast, in California and Washington. Most are grown in greenhouses, but some are grown in fields in Washington. Mr. Serafini says you sometimes can tell if tulips came from the fields of Washington because they will arrive with dirt on the leaves from late spring rains.
Although Mr. Serafini recognizes the quality of cut tulips produced in the United States, he has noticed that the consistency is often better among cut tulips coming from Holland. As a result, he says, large event planners often choose Dutch tulips over domestic ones if they need hundreds of tulips with the same color and height for multiple centerpieces.
As compared to the U.S. market, Holland also tends to grow more unusual tulip types. Mr. Serafini explains that tulips are a cottage industry in Holland, so some growers are willing to put in a small crop of a specialty item, such as the ‘Black Parrot’, a deep-purple variety with feathered petals (see photo at left).

You may reach Contributing Editor Monica Humbard by phone at (800) 355-8086.

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