American Tulip Capital.
This festival has no outdoor bands, no costumed folks, and no dancing—unless you count the gazillion tulips waving in the fields. This is Washington State’s Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.
Put your “Two Lips” on an Expresso.
The easiest way to experience the festival, which runs the entire month of April, is with Clipper Vacation’s annual full-day tour, “Tip Toe Through the Tulips.” You depart at the crack of dawn from Seattle’s Pier 69 in a beautifully-appointed motor coach to enjoy a picture-window 2-hour ride, leaving the driving to them.
Getting us ready for the sight of the expansive tulip fields, our guide, Greg Coe, begins his narration right after the bus leaves the curb. He has a lot to tell about how and why tulips are grown in the famous Skagit Valley, an agricultural flatland just north of Seattle.
This part of Skagit County is only four feet above sea level, and over 200 agrarian crops are grown here. With a population of about 118,000 people, this valley is a major producer of cabbage, table beet, and spinach seed. The eight vegetable seed companies here produce a $21 million crop that’s marketed worldwide. Ninety percent of all the cabbage seeds in the world come from here.
“Cruciferous vegetables grow best in just four places in the world,” Greg says. “New Zealand, Tasmania, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and Washington’s Skagit Valley.”
A colorful Skagit Valley tulip field.
But we want to know about flowers! Greg tells us that, “More tulip, daffodil and iris bulbs are produced in Skagit County than in any county in the United States. About 1,000 acres are cultivated and about 20 million bulbs are harvested each summer, with 50 million cut flowers accounting for about 50% of overall sales.”
Tulips grow two ways: by seed and by bulbs. The latter is faster. These 450 acres of tulips represent 75% of U.S. commercial production. Yet for every tulip bulb there are two daffodil and four iris bulbs planted.
The first tulip farm Greg introduces us to is Roozengaarde Flowers & Bulbs, the largest single bulb producer in the U.S., celebrating their 25th anniversary.
According to their catalogue (yes, you can order bulbs through the mail!): “We practice a five-year crop rotation schedule to maintain soil structure and diminish the diseases affecting our crops. This practice also minimizes soil erosion caused by wind and water.” Tulip fields are rotated every year because they deplete the soil. They don’t like a lot of water, so the irrigation ditches between the rows are deep. Every fall the bulbs are dug up and sorted to get them ready for early spring planting.
Roosengaarde is very eco-conscious: “All of our flower packaging product is recyclable if not bio-degradable. Recycled newspaper is used for flower packing and shipping. Shredded office paper is used for bulb packing and shipping.”
Sixteen acres of greenhouses under glass, tended with robotics, make it possible for Roosengaarde to provide for Seattle a year-round supply of top quality fresh-cut tulips, daffodils, iris and lilies. But this is only ten percent of the production. While the flowers are beautiful, the primary crop is the bulbs. Agra-tourism is a minor role by comparison.
Greg says a big machine comes through the fields to “play Marie Antoinette and cut off their heads.”
There are four acres of display gardens here, with a sign that says, “Stay on the path and please don’t pick the flowers.”
You too can tiptoe thru the tulips.
History Of Tulips
Tulips have a bright history.
Cameras in hand, we scatter through the fields armed with a smattering knowledge of the history of tulips:
Tulips were first discovered in central Asia in the Tien-Shan and Pamir Alai Mountain Ranges near modern day Islamabad and the border of Russia and China, and in Transcaucasia, the areas of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Tulips enjoyed a long history in Persia, where they were cultivated as early as 1,000 AD; The Dutch were the first to cultivate them in Europe.
Tulips like cool mountainous regions and dry conditions.
Tulip bulbs are edible. Daffodil bulbs are poisonous, so you never want to put tulips and daffodils in the same vase because the daffodils will poison the tulips.
The name tulip is believed to have been inspired by the turban worn by the people of central Asia when it was known as the great Ottoman Empire. Translated into Latin, the word became tulipa. But Greg cautions: “If you ask two Dutchmen, you’ll get three opinions.”
Our second farm visit is to Tulip Town, a Skagit Valley bulb farm owned by the Anthony DeGoede family. Many of these families came to this area after World War II.
The DeGoede’s provide tractor rides to the far end of their fields for a different camera vantage. They have also constructed a platform you can climb to get an even more expansive view of the rows and rows of bobbing reds, yellows, lavenders, whites, pinks.
This farm also has 1 ½ acres under glass. Here displays introduce us to tulip names like Keizerskroon, Princess Irene, Graffiti, Dynasty, Red Emporer, Christmas Marvel, Miranda and Mrs. J. Scheapers. (I can’t help but wonder who in their right mind would name a beautiful tulip, “Graffiti?”)
Want a tulip theme, buy it here.
The DeGoedes are also big fans of kites. There are impressive permanent flying displays, powered by the continuous winds across the valley.
Naturally both farms have lovely gift shops where you can buy everything tulip—trivets, aprons, notebooks, faux stained glass window decorations, refrigerator magnets, vases, linens, purses, colorful carved wooden tulip—and kites. You can buy one and enjoy the satisfaction of immediate flying excitement with your kids on the flat, spacious lawn of the surrounding gounds.
From Tulip Town, our coach delivers us into the nearby town of La Conner, the cultural hub of the Skagit Valley. We have plenty of time to dine and explore. A restaurant list is distributed, with notes on each selection and an easy-to-follow street map. While both tulip farms have food available, we opted for a late lunch in La Conner, with its choice of charming restaurants like Sempre Italiano, The Next Chapter Bookstore & Coffeehouse, Calico Cupboard Old town Café & Bakery, Nell Thorn Restaurant & Pub, Whiskers Café, Inc. and La Conner Seafood & Prime Rib House.
The popular kites of Tulip Town.
La Conner, Washington, a historic waterfront village oozing charm, has three museums: The Museum of Northwest Art, the Skagit County Historical Museum, and the la Conner Quilt & Textile Museum, plus an outdoor sculpture exhibit, and locally owned boutiques, art galleries, inns and restaurants. Situated between the valley and the Swinomish Channel, with Victorian-era homes and old-fashioned commercial buildings—few more than two stories—you can enjoy waterfront dining, ice cream, and boardwalks with benches.
Leaving La Conner, we are treated to a sky filled with snow geese, wheeling and dipping over the fields in a tightly-coordinated air-dance. Our driver stops the motor coach so we can take probably as many pictures as there are snow geese!
On the ride back to Seattle, Greg tells us how La Conner came to be named. Louise A. Conner, wife of the founder of the town, received a letter on which the address was subsequently misread by the post office. Addressed to L.A. Conner—well, you can see where that went.
No tulip farm is complete
without a windmill.
The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival began in 1984, and brings an estimated 300,000 visitors and $65 million in revenue to Skagit County. Clipper Vacations has sponsored the Festival since 1991, with six weekend tour dates. Clipper Vacations offers two different ways to travel to La Conner: one-way by deluxe motor coach combined with one-way passage aboard the Victoria Clipper III, or round-trip by deluxe motor coach. Departure is at 9:15 a.m. if by coach, 8:15 a.m. if by Victoria Clipper III; both tours return about 6:30 in the evening. This narrated tulip fields and bulb farm tour, with time on your own to explore La Conner, makes a wonderful family outing or even a great first date!
Extra tip: April can be crisp. Layered clothing is best, plus good walking shoes that can get muddy.
Besides their “Tip Toe Through The Tulips” excursion, Clipper Vacations offers overnight getaways (golf, ski & spa packages) to Canada’s Whistler, the San Juan Islands (for whale-watching), Portland, Oregon, and Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia. Clipper Vacations also has specialized pre- and post-packages associated with Alaska cruises.
If by chance you escaped the Skagit Valley without making a tulip purchase, did we mention you can order them by mail?
Roozengaarde Flowers & Bulbs
P.O. Box 1248
Mount Vernon, WA 98273
or (866) 488-5477
Fax (360) 424-3113
Tulip Town Skagit Valley
Bulb Farm, Inc.
15002 Bradshaw Ranch
Mount Vernon, WA 98273
La Conner Chamber of Commerce
606 Morris Street
La Conner, WA
P.O. Box 1610
La Conner, WA 98257
Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Saturday, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Sunday, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
(April – September only)
Pier 69, Seattle
or (800) 888-2535
— Feature and photos by Carolyn Hamilton, Jetsetters Magazine Editor.