The Tulip Problem

Westbrook Pegler

Spartanburg Herald/May 7, 1940

New York, May 6—Our park department has been having a small fuss over the conduct of 900,000 tulip bulbs which were presented to the City of New York by the Netherlands government, most of which have failed to tulip this spring. The part department says the bulbs got too hot or too cold on the way over, and the Dutch growers will have it that they were planted improperly. With the world in its present state, this is no time to complicate relations between this country and the Netherlands over such a matter. This is once that your correspondent feels able to help.

The fact of the matter is that tulips aren’t supposed to bloom. That is, your own tulips. Other people’s tulips, yes. Yours, no! If one of your own tulips does bloom, that is just so much gravy. Your own are always planted upside down or the moles get them or the ground was too soggy or too dry or you put them in too early or too late or the frost reached them. It was a pretty hard winter in spots, and if it was the mildest winter in 30 years, why, that was only on the average.

It was mild on the average because there were so many sunny, spring-like days toward the end, and so many lovely Indian summer days right up to Christmas which raised the average temperature. But don’t forget that terrible cold spell along toward the end of January. That was what nipped your tulips. Other people’s tulips were protected by a wall or the lee of a hill or they were covered by a thicker grade of mulch. That stuff you buy to cover tulips.

The tulip is a fairly reliable plant in the sense that you can put it in the ground and feel confident that when spring comes it will just stick up some twisted, greenish-brown leaves and then put out a stem with a little knob on the end which presently just falls over and doesn’t do a damn thing. The Hollanders make an industry of tulips, but not for the blooms. They sell bulbs to the Americans, and they harvest the leaves and sell them to their neighbors, the Germans. Anybody was has ever smoked a German cigar knows what the Germans use the leaves for, just as anybody who has ever smoked a French cigarette knows what the thrifty French do with their hair combings.

This isn’t the first time that the relations of Holland with another country have been embarrassed by the tulip. There was a period a long time ago when the whole world went crazy over tulip bulbs, which became a medium of gambling or speculation that led to a crash comparable to the relapse of the Florida boom or the panic of 1929. They sold bulbs for as much as $25,000 apiece and companies were formed to buy one bulb.

A book tells of a disastrous incident in which an English sailor, sent ashore to deliver a present from his master to a Dutch merchant and, being given a herring for his trouble, casually filched from the counter an object which he took to be an onion to eat with the herring. It was half gone when the Dutch merchant discovered his loss, and I don’t just remember, but I think the ship owner lost a big lawsuit and the sailor got life. But even so, if the bulb had been planted, the odds are a hundred to one that it would have been put in upside down or the frost or moles or the damp would have got it, or it would have run all to German cigar leaf.

Tulips do not harm. They have their place in the world, but they are not in the habit of blooming any more than a wisteria which your correspondent mentioned a year or so ago, which was bred to a bull wisteria and even subjected to a delicate operation, but finally settled down to life of spinsterhood. It is just an old bag, but we let it hang around. Tulips keep commerce between Holland and other countries, and if you think it is wrong to sell bulbs which do not give tulips, then what would you say about color-movie films which gives hundreds of feet of realistic views of the inside of a coal mine at midnight in the dark of the moon when aimed at tropical scenes in Florida?

These films also cost money, but nobody ever expects them to produce color movies, except now and again a chance shot, just as the tulip, sometimes, unexpectedly gives a tulip.

That is to say, of course, your tulip bulbs and your color films. Other people get blossoms and beautiful shots of the children at the world’s fair, but not you.

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