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Something Naughty?

"And then my heart with pleasure fills,/ And dances with the daffodils," wrote a decidedly English poet, William Wordsworth. The tulips, seasonal successors to the daffodils, suggest by contrast something deliciously un-English, something a little naughty, something less akin to a respectable Wordsworth than to tiptoeing Tiny Tim.

According to Persion legend, the tulip sprang from the spilled blood of a tragic lover. Want to send your romantic message through a tulip bouquet? Here's the established code: fiery red for burning, questing passion, but yellow if you judge your love to be hopeless.

At the height of the tulip-market madness, which started building in the early 1620s and didn't crash till 1637, one particularly prized bulb was commanding the equivalent, by 1630s Netherlands dairy prices, of approximately 20 tonnes of cheese.

Even the tulip's botanical origins suggest a certain unrestraint. Some of the genes have been traced to the snowy uplands west and northwest of the Himalayas, in part near Islamabad, in part in the former Soviet central Asian republics. Cultivated by medieval times in more westerly Asia, tulips made their way into 1500s Europe through opulent Ottoman Istanbul.

This week, we had the good luck to reach Carol Goodwin, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.

She'd normally be abroad in our tulip season, teaching her four-week NSAC no-prerequisites Gardens of Britain course. But because this was for her a sabbatical period, she was temporarily in town, and able to extol for us the practical virtues of the tulip in Nova Scotian landscaping.

Tulips, she noted, have few pest and disease problems. And she had the welcome news that the "species", as distinct from the more showy "hybrid", varieties can actually be naturalized in the manner of daffodils, so as to self-propagate year after year.

When we asked Prof. Goodwin how she, personally, sees the tulip in springtime Nova Scotia, she became lyrical. For her own summer garden, she selects tranquil pastels and whites. But for spring, after the bleakness of a Colchester winter, she craves, she said, the vibrant accents of daffodils and tulips, flinging artistic restraint aside.

Here she doubtless expressed the exuberance of many, as Truro geared up for its sixth annual tulip festival, which continues through Monday [= 2003 May 19].