Tiptoe through the tulips

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“There’s no finer ambassador of quality than the tulip,” Todd Tibbitts, senior VP of property services at Post Properties, said recently, adding that the blossom has long been a symbol of opulence and excellence worldwide, making it the perfect reflection of the company’s upscale communities’ qualities.

Founded in Atlanta in 1971 as a local real estate development and management company, Post Properties was a pioneer in the development of suburban garden-style apartments and quickly realized the importance of curb appeal.

Because Atlanta experiences distinct seasonal weather changes, Post launched an in-house landscape division in the late 1970s to make certain that prospective and current residents would be greeted by flowers in bloom year-round, said Tibbits, who joined the company as an entry-level grounds person in 1983 shortly after earning a degree in agriculture. A product of the promote-from-within policy of Post’s in-house landscape division, he rose to middle-management, then landscape VP and, in 2003 attained his current position as senior VP of property services, overseeing all of the REIT’s landscape and building maintenance.

Post landscapers fell in love with the tulip when few others in the South were willing to consider it because it was generally thought that there were no heat tolerant varieties that could thrive in the Sunbelt and Southwest. So Post’s landscaping experts began doing their own tulip research, buying a few and trying them and then a few more, in the search for cultivars best suited for the warmer soils and hotter temperatures of the South, finally settling on the Darwin hybrids, which are the size and shape most commonly associated with tulips. Within the Darwin hybrids is a series called Oxford that is very popular at Post because it is as red as the blossom on the company’s logo.

“We love red tulips, so I’d say more than half of the tulips we use are red and we strive to use them around our entryways to correspond with the red tulip on the logo of the sign at the front of the property,” said Tibbits, explaining that a wide variety of other tulips may be found in common areas further into the apartment communities’ property and in courtyard gardens, where the big, fat- blossomed peony-types and the pointy-petaled lily flower types often bloom.

Post receives bulbs from Holland in November, and as soon as they arrive, they are planted in the flower beds, where they lie dormant for a few months. They start emerging with a big crescendo of spring flowers in February with the daffodils and then in March and April with the tulips.

Once the April show is over, landscapers pull the tulip bulbs up along with the pansies, daffodils, hyacinths, crocus and ornamental kale, cabbage and snapdragons that are part of Post’s cool weather symphony of color, leaving a clean bed ready to put in the summer crop of begonias, geraniums, marigolds, impatiens and other warm weather flora.

The company gets about two weeks of color from a single bed of tulips. An average bed, where tulip bulbs are planted about six inches apart, is between 250 and 500 sq. ft., with between one and two thousand bulbs in any one display area in Post’s garden-style communities. If a community has ten flower beds on a property, for example, three may be planted with tulips that bloom early in the season, another three beds with mid-season varieties and the remaining beds with late season bloomers providing a color concert that lasts from a month to six weeks.

With the size of Post’s current portfolio and flower bed square footages around and between the company’s suburban garden-style apartments, and courtyards, raised planters and pots and rooftop terraces at its urban properties, the company plants around half a million tulips a year.

It would be less expensive to plant something like the daffodil that comes back year after year rather than the tulip hybrids that last just one season, but, because the cup-shaped flowers are such an important part of Post’s image, the REIT is certain it’s worth the added expense.

Today tulip bulbs that Post buys cost between 10 cents and 50 cents each, depending on variety. While not exactly cheap, that’s a mere fraction of a fraction of what a single tulip bulb cost 350 years ago in Holland when tulipomania gripped the country with a force that bears a striking resemblance to the condomania that spread across this country a few years back.

“Three and a half centuries ago, the tulip, still fairly new to the West, unleashed a brief, collective madness that shook a whole nation and nearly brought its economy to ruin,” wrote Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. “Never before or since has a flower–a flower!–taken a star turn on history’s main stage as it did in Holland between 1634 and 1637.

“Semper Augustus was the intricately feathered red-and-white tulip, one bulb of which changed hands for ten thousand guilders at the height of the mania, a sum that at the time would have bought one of the grandest canal houses in Amsterdam,” Pollan wrote, explaining the Semper Augustus type of tulip has since become extinct because tulips, like apples, don’t come true from seed and their bulbs don’t reliably come back every year, so a strain won’t last unless it is regularly replanted, otherwise the chain of genetic continuity can be broken in a single generation.

Comparing tulipomania to a medieval carnival, when paupers could take on the personae of kings and craziness was sanctioned, he notes that, “as with society, so with capitalism in the throes of a speculative mania: all of its values are turned on their head — thrift, patience, value for money, reward for effort. For as long as the carnival of capitalism lasts, the rules of logic are repealed, or rather recast along new lines, ones that will appear absurd in the cold light of the morning after, but make impeccable sense within the fevered space of the speculative bubble,” bringing to mind, again, the incredible prices paid by eager speculators at the height of the condo carnival.

The tulip is believed to have been introduced to Europe around 1554 by Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, ambassador of the Austrian Hapsburgs to the court of Suleyman the Magnificent in Constantinople, probably gaining initial eminence because of its trip from one court to another, bearing the royal favor that helped to insure its popularity.

Amy Stewart tells us, in her recently published New York Times bestseller Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful, which focuses mainly on the cut flower trade, “It was the height of French fashion around 1610 for a woman to wear a tulip the way she might wear a jewel.”

By the middle of the 17th century, the tulip business in Holland had morphed from the sale of actual bulbs to paper trades and contracts and “Dutch merchants outbid each other at auctions, knowing that they could buy a bulb one day and flip it for a quick profit, the way people flip real estate in a hot market,” Stewart wrote.

But, bubbles are bound to burst and, Pollan tells us in his book on botany, the death of the tulip frenzy gave birth to the “greater fool theory,” which is just as applicable to the modern single-family home/ condo bubble and the subprime lending spree that ended abruptly last summer as it was when it was born on February 2, 1637 in one of Haarlem’s tavern “colleges,” where tulip auctions were conducted.

On that fateful day, bidding started at 1,250 guilders for a bunch of bulbs. No one bid. Nor did reduction of the bid price to 1,100 guilders and then 1,000 guilders result in any response and suddenly everyone in the room understood that the bottom had just fallen out of the market. As Pollan tells it, “Haarlem was the capital of the bulb trade, and the news that there were no buyers to be found there ricocheted across the country. Within days tulip bulbs were unsellable at any price. In all of Holland, a greater fool was no longer to be found.”

According to Stewart, bankruptcies and charges of fraud followed and court cases dragged on for years, but, just as the condo and single- family home industries are expected to return to normalcy, the price of a tulip bulb stabilized at about one guilder and Holland’s flower industry managed to stay alive and flourish, albeit without the huge profits and eventual huge losses the 17th Century craze wrought.

Production in that land of dikes and windmills now has reached over 10 billion bulbs that also include hyacinths, irises and daffodils.

Today 50,000 acres of Holland produce around 65 percent of the world market’s bulbs and the country’s bulb industry is worth about a billion dollars annually, said Stewart.

But it’s not necessary to know anything about the tulip’s illustrious history to be as captivated by the mystique of the cool, unscented blossom as were the Dutch were 400 years ago, Tibbitts agreed. “When there’s a mass planting of tulips in bloom, they’re just spectacular,” he said.