By Nancy Hass Feb. 24, 2020

On her estate in the English countryside, one horticultural historian is cultivating a small empire of almost extinct varieties that once bloomed centuries ago.

The Victorian conservatory attached to the main house on Polly Nicholson’s estate remains frost-free year-round, allowing her to grow plants like succulents from Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.Simon Upton

THE FLORAL DESIGNER and organic grower Polly Nicholson understands why the tulip rarely gets its due. Despite its simple shape, it is the most freighted of blooms. That may be why the genus Tulipa, of all the flowers she grows, consumes her.

Unlike the rose, which is associated with all things sweet — romantic love, a pleasant perfume — the tulip has baggage. In 17th-century Holland, it was responsible for the frenzy called tulipomania, which drove bulb prices to absurd levels and is now shorthand for ruinous economic bubbles. It is also associated with the corner deli or grocery store, where these days tulips stand as unglamorous commoners, identical bunches of primary reds and yellows shipped from stadium-size fields in the Netherlands, bound with rubber bands and jammed into green plastic buckets.

What people forget, says Nicholson, as she walks along the paths of Blacklands, her 120-acre estate in Wiltshire, England, a 90-minute drive west of London, is that tulips were an aesthetic fixation long before tulipomania — and remained so long after. Starting in the early 16th century, when garden styles changed to favour mostly green landscapes, tulips, with their vast array of shapes, hues, sizes and markings — candy-cane swirls, flames of aubergine and scarlet, ivory double blooms edged in fuchsia — were the object of unparalleled desire throughout much of Europe. Whether solid-colour varieties planted in borders with hyacinths and white narcissus by Louis XIV in the gardens surrounding the Grand Trianon at Versailles or the one-off, elaborately streaked sorts husbanded by members of the more than 100 tulip societies that flourished in England from the 17th to mid-19th century, tulips were long acknowledged as the most poetic and mysterious of blooms. “Consider it,” Nicholson says, as we stand in the shadow of a clipped copper beech hedge, trumpet-shaped Ivory Floridale and Doll’s Minuet, a magenta bloom streaked with green — nodding on whippet like stems in the distance: “We can always recognise a tulip, even though they can be so different, like a lion from a tiger. No other flower is quite so deeply coded in our awareness.”

Simon Upton

Simon Upton

Simon Upton

Nicholson, 50, is on a mission to return the tulip to its rightful place in history and the public imagination. Her garden spreads over 4.5 acres and includes a parterre created in a defunct walled tennis court beside the 18th-century, 10-bedroom limestone manor house she shares with her husband, Ed, who used to work in finance, and their four children. Although she grows nearly 200 other flower species, supplying designers with sweet peas, delphiniums and China asters, it is tulips, she insists, that embody our inchoate longing for novelty and surprise. Perhaps no other flower is as obsessively categorized by botanists: There are 100 types of wild tulips and 15 categories grouped by bloom time and shape. And, with over 5,000 distinct cultivars, no other bloom has a wider range of colours, from the slender white-and-crimson viridiflora Flaming Spring Green and the raspberry-striped Hemisphere to the peony-like, double-fringed claret-red Belfort and Blackjack, a single flower the colour of a half-healed bruise. Such complexity, variation and potential for downright strangeness may explain why it was they, not the rose or the hyacinth or the peony, that once brutally hobbled an entire financial system.

Nicholson is among a handful of private growers whose passion is the resurrection of nearly extinct heirloom tulips, including the mahogany-and-butterscotch-streaked Absalon, first registered in 1780, and the velvety lavender-pink La Joyeuse, from 1863. Outside her acres, it would take a time machine set to the 19th century to find fields as thick with the endangered blooms she prefers (she shows them annually with Britain’s only remaining club dedicated to the flower, the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society). Her specialty is the rare heritage varieties called florists’ tulips — until the 1800s, the term “florist” was used not for flower sellers but to describe a particular intense sort of amateur grower — but she also cultivates broken tulips, those whose petals bear flame-like striations: just the sort that set off the Dutch craze. The fever stemmed from the fact that such markings, memorialized in dozens of paintings by Dutch still-life artists and countless illustrated books of the time, emerged randomly from solid-colour bulbs; no one could discern what caused the hues to “break.” Although commercial hybridizers have created imitations of this aesthetically pleasing strain, real broken tulips cannot be propagated by seed, only by collecting the tiny offshoots that form on the main bulb; their delicacy and rarity make them exceedingly precious.

In 1927, the British mycologist Dorothy Cayley discovered that the spontaneous colouration of broken tulips was caused by an aphid-borne virus, the reason the flowers are now largely extinct. Today, Nicholson is among the few breeders who are growing them, in an isolated patch away from the other tulips to prevent contamination. “There is a risk,” she says, “but they are so beautiful that it’s hard to see them as flawed.” After bloom time in April and May of each year, she digs the bulbs up to tease away the tiny bulblets that form on each side, readying them for fall planting. Every spring, the peacock-bright feathered striations surprise her: magenta twisted with antique white, tangerine and black exploding into hot pink, violet tinged with butterscotch. They wave in the long grass like velvet on fire.

Simon Upton

Simon Upton

NICHOLSON’S DECISION TO turn her private garden into a commercial operation evolved slowly. She and her husband bought the estate, which includes a coach house, stables and a dovecote with 1,500 limestone perches, in 2005, forsaking a townhouse in London’s Ravenscourt Park. The property is on the outskirts of the market town of Calne, once home to the C&T Harris bacon factory and, for roughly a decade following its closing, severe unemployment; the two-lane highway that runs through the municipality is lined with battered buff-coloured two-storey attached houses. “Our friends thought we were daft to be buying here, in an area that’s not as smart as the Cotswolds,” she says, “but what is wonderful is that this is a town with people living here, working in the area, not just bankers buzzing back and forth from the city. It’s a much more real existence.”

Their property, down an easily missed fork lined with loosely pruned box hedges and beech trees, is majestic though understated. Nicholson comes from a long line of antiquarian book dealers (her business is called Bayntun Flowers, for George Bayntun, her great-great-grandfather, the founder of the famed, 126-year-old eponymous bookstore in Bath). After university, where she majored in English literature and minored in medieval studies, she spent years in the books and manuscripts department of Sotheby’s, dreaming of flowers and of moving to the country.

But soon after she moved to Blacklands, with its rolling meadows, endless lawns and groves of meticulously trimmed cedar of Lebanon, oak and beech trees, friends began asking her to pillage her cutting garden to make bouquets or create arrangements for private parties. Nicholson had always thought of herself more as a flower grower than a creator of landscapes, and in response, she began to scale up operations to include a herd of 70 black Hebridean sheep, to keep the grass trimmed, and several part-time staffers, including craftspeople who make plant supports from bent willow branches and gardeners who hand-clip her half-mile of trees and countless topiaries. She invites groups for lectures in her vast greenhouse and holds workshops in the old coach house; the thick stone walls keep the buckets of flowers cool even in August and provide a shady place to dry spidery alliums for the wreaths she makes and sells.

Despite the constant sense of industry, Bayntun may seem to be more productive than immensely profitable. Nicholson revels in a garden that does more than just provide private enjoyment; it brings fresh energy to a working town, jolts history alive and leaves the land more fertile than it was before. In championing long-unseen tulips, laboriously coaxing them back into existence and then slipping them into bouquets that find their way to smart London events, Nicholson lends a frisson to her industrious country life: With every fierce flame or ragged fringe, the past flickers, brilliantly, briefly, into view.