Forcing Spring

The Dutch connection

In the winter of 1994 the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York premiered its “Dutch Connection” exhibition, during which thousands of forced bulbs bloomed en masse in the conservatory of Eastman’s mansion. The mid-winter explosion of tulip, narcissus and daffodil flowers was the brainchild of then-landscape curator Deirdre Cunningham. In February 2008 the present curator, Amy Kinsey, will oversee the 14th annual Dutch Connection.

Cunningham learned that while still a young tycoon George Eastman had gone on a bicycle tour of the tulip-growing region of the Netherlands. He had been so impressed by the colors and verdure that year later, after he moved in his East Avenue home, he began ordering thousands of bulbs every year, forcing them in his greenhouses and displaying them in his home.

Eastman kept meticulous records of all his domestic activities. Copies of every bulb order he ever placed through the years were saved and sixty-two years after his death Cunningham found them in the archives of the George Eastman House, which had opened as a photography museum in 1949.

Dutch tulips

Several of the tulip varieties that Eastman ordered in the latest 19th and early 20th century were no longer available in the late 20th century. Cunningham was actually able to go to same Dutch company that Eastman had ordered his bulbs from, but had to either accept substitutes suggested by the company or find out what the antique varieties looked like and find modern varieties with similar blooms in their catalog.

Tulip beds

The varieties had gone out of style in part because improvements to the plants and in part because of mere changes in the tulip-buying public’s taste. Over the years tulip breeders had produced blooms that lasted longer and stems that held up the flowers better.

In the matter of taste, it is interesting that at the Eastman House volunteers had also tried to put together a cookbook composed of Mr. Eastman’s favorite recipes – because these were meticulously written down and preserved as well – and were surprised to find most of them inedible. Just as Americans’ taste in flowers had changed over the decades, so had their tastes in desserts (which were formerly not as sweet as they are now).

Once the bulbs were ordered and received they had to be forced. Eastman’s greenhouses were no longer extant on the property, so Cunningham had to look else where for facilities. The parks department of Monroe County allowed her and her staff, Andy Joss and Berna Ticonchuk, as well as a host of volunteers to store the bulbs in their roots cellar and then pot them up and set them out in the county’s greenhouses.

In general, in order to have bulbs flower in February, they should be potted up by mid-October. They first have to be stored in a cool (35˚F–50˚F) place for 12 to 16 weeks. In milder climates this place can be a shady cold frame on the north side of a building. In Rochester and other seriously cold climates a dry basement is a better location.

Forced narcissus

After the “cool period” elapses the pots can be moved into the sun where it is warmer (60˚F–65˚F). Flower buds should appear within three to four weeks. In order to make the blooms last longer, the pots should then be moved into indirect sunlight.

The Eastman House landscape staff had to time the blooming of the bulbs so that they would come in successive waves; the “Dutch Connection” exhibition has varied in length between two and three weeks over its 14-year history. New plants were put in vans and brought over from the county greenhouses as the blooms on the older plants begin to fade.

The leaves fall from the trees in Rochester in mid-October and the ground is often frozen by early to mid-December, whether or not the ground is covered with snow. Although the East Avenue neighborhood and Rochester in general is lushly planted with evergreen shrubs and trees and it does not present a bleak visual aspect through the winter, there is no smell.

When visitors enter the Eastman House during the “Dutch Connection” they are shocked by the smell of greenery in the middle of February. It reminds everyone how wonderful spring will be when it finally comes.

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