February 14 has come and gone, marking the end of the floral business's biggest day. But on Pier 39, a site more often associated with the city's tourist trade, flower beds and wine barrels planted with exuberant floral displays are in full bloom, marking the onset of spring and honoring the tulip, a flower with a rich and complicated history.
Though each bulb yields only one flower, lasting at most two weeks, the landscapers at Pier 39 plant early, mid-season and late varieties to guarantee an ever-changing and longer lasting display. With names like "Happy Generation," "Apricot Impression," and "Black Hero," the tulips are many and varied. Some change color over time, such as "Tequila Sunrise," which shifts from yellow to pink. Others feature petals with delicate stripes of color that appear to have been applied with a painter's brush. While European beds are precisely measured, Pier 39's displays are crowded and buoyant. "This is California," said my guide, "so we're very casual."
In his 2001 book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan devotes an edifying chapter to the tulip, exploring our human desire for beauty and perfection as it has shaped the appearance of this highly mutable flower over centuries of obsession. Tulips, Pollan writes, "are capable of prodigies, reinventing themselves again and again to suit every change in the aesthetic or political weather."
Today's tulips differ greatly from the varieties that were popular to Turkish, Dutch, or French eyes of the past. Strains have changed and mutated, fads grown and faded, new hybrids bred and disseminated. The barrels of flowers at Pier 39 showcase a more recent trend in gardening, featuring edible plants (lettuce, parsley, dinosaur kale, and bright orange calendulas) mixed in with the more traditional groupings of narcissuses, Icelandic poppies, and English primroses.
The history of the tulip is surprisingly sensational for its often-prim appearance. Tulipmania, as the display at Pier 39 is titled, refers to an outrageous speculative market in the early seventeenth-century Netherlands that suddenly burst in 1637, requiring government intervention, new regulations, and forever changing the reputation of the flower. The tulip became a symbol of folly and the ephemeral, finding itself a fixture in vanitas paintings of the era, warning against the impermanence of life. The Legion of Honor has one marvelous example of such in Willem van Aelst's Flowers in a Silver Vase (1663).
Flowers in a Silver Vase, Willem van Aelst, 1663.
Just 100 years later, the tulip was partially responsible for the downfall of the Turkish Sultan Ahmed III. For his annual tulip festivals, the sultan imported bulbs by the millions from Holland, still the world's number one tulip exporter today. Living tulips were supplanted by cut stems, surrounded by mirrors and lit with candles, as guests dressed in complementary colors explored the garden to tunes of songbirds in gilded cages. According to Pollan's retelling, "the conspicuous waste of national treasure helped fire the revolt that ended [Ahmed's] rule" in 1730.
In San Francisco, at least for the next few weeks, the tulips at Pier 39 are likely to spawn less mania than photo ops. For those interested in a deeper explanation of the beds and barrels, the pier offers free daily tours of the displays until February 26. On my visit, Denise Dirickson, Director of Environmental Services, was the knowledgeable expert to an assembled (and eccentric) group of tulip lovers and passers-by. Dirickson, who has been with the pier since it opened, provided an insider's view of the enormous effort behind this annual event. It takes 30,000 bulbs to create Tulipmania, with 100 in each wine barrel scattered along the many pedestrian bridges and wooden walkways. "The Dutch growers love us," she said, "we buy fresh every year."
Pier 39 might not be a destination favored by locals looking for less crowded, more authentic experiences, but even the most skeptical will be won over by the earnest exuberance of Tulipmania, especially on one of those clear, sunny, beautiful San Francisco spring days.
Free guided tours of Tulipmania meet daily at the Pier 39 Entrance Plaza at 10am through February 26, 2012. For more information visit pier39.com.
All photos: Sarah Hotchkiss.