Tulip fever hit West Sussex in the middle of April and migrated quickly from its epicentre at the Arundel Castle tulip festival to my garden here in Lewes.
With the narcissi and daffodils of early spring on the wane, we gardeners were looking to the next botanical delight: the tightly wrapped buds and folded leaves offering the promise of incredible variety in colour and shape.
A winter of defending pots and beds from the incursions of rampaging squirrels, who seem to adore the bulbs as much as lost nuts, was rewarded by each exquisite form as it broke cover. And exciting as my own garden was, I realised that it could not compete with the vast array of tulips planted on castle banks, in wild and walled areas, in kitchen and formal gardens.
An irresistible invitation
The invitation to speak to Martin Duncan, Kew Guild medallist (2018) and head gardener at Arundel Castle was, and will be, my horticultural high point of the year. It was clear that I should not delay my visit any longer but to come that very day. Never having visited before, I could not resist.
In a fascinating phonecall, Martin had already painted vivid pictures in my head of hillsides in Jordan, where he had designed gardens for the royal palaces, covered with the national flower – the black iris – and the wild species tulips. He talked of influences from his early years in Zimbabwe and his time in charge of most things botanical in Bermuda, including Government House.
The Arundel tulip festival was his initiative and it has developed over the years of his tenure: this year, for the first time, the castle banks were planted with red Apeldoorn tulips and swathes of Thalia narcissi. His tulip labyrinth is the first in the world and further enhances the Collector Earl’s Garden (redesigned by Isabel and Julian Bannerman in 2008).
And everywhere there are tulips – over 120,000 planted this year alone and 1.3 million in the last ten years. Many are left in from year to year: Purple Prince, Mistress, Curly Sue, Don Quichotte, Pink Impression and some of his favourites – Purple Dream, Red Oxford and Angelique. He plans Kingsblood to be in full flower on Coronation day – he is crossing his fingers on that one.
I arrived in Arundel barely an hour after I put down the phone, greeted at the entrance by large pots full of vibrant yellow, red and orange tulips: Monsella, Monte Carlo, Mondiale, Foxtrot, Columbus, Showcase. The castle banks were all that Martin had promised, and the walk by trees full of blossom, underplanted by drifts of narcissi and purple tulips, just made me happy.
A car park until the 1970s, the Collector Earl’s Garden presents a formal Italianate garden with a jaw- dropping display of Pink Impression tulips in enormous terracotta pots. The effect was wonderfully theatrical as a grotto feeds a pool, flanked by fountains from urns with gilded lions’ heads, which in turn cascades into a lower pool.
From this terrace Oberon’s Palace, with its magical coronet kept aloft by a jet of water, could be seen on the other side of the tulip maze, still vibrant with Thalia narcissus about to give way to those Kingsblood tulips waiting for the coronation.
Wandering through to the box parterres in the kitchen gardens, there were the different heights of tulip that Martin had mentioned, looking like tiered wedding or christening cakes. The hut in the wild garden was surrounded by lilac, white, pink and purple tulips, and more tulips gave life and colour to the early herbaceous borders. Tulips Angelique planted with forget-me-nots looked brilliant in a rose garden too early for roses.
Inspiration for gardeners
My mind full of new ideas for planting in my humble plot, I met up with Martin in his stumpery which was truly enchanting. This personal favourite of Martin’s is entirely his own design, using the remains of yew, sweet chestnut and oak, victims of the 1987 storm.
To make something so beautiful out of the roots of trees blown over by the wind, was redemptive as well as a powerful wordless statement on the resilience of the natural world. Snakes-head fritillaries and botanical tulips such as Persian Pearls bloomed alongside narcissi, scillas, wood anemones and hellebores in and around the upturned tree stumps. These will have their seasons, but the stumpery will continue to provide a habitat for many beneficial insects and creatures.
So much to see besides the tulips, but they do take a starring role, and there were so many I was tempted to take home! It’s easy to understand how tulip fever erupted in 17th century Holland when these lovely bulbs first appeared. I can only be glad that my own fever is easily calmed by perusing a few, well-chosen catalogues.