The swaths of tulips coming up at Botanica this spring will be more surprising and unpredictable than usual.
Somewhere between Holland and Wichita, about 30,000 tulip bulbs – half of Botanica’s annual shipment – got overturned and mixed up, leaving gardeners guessing at the colors and varieties and scrambling to adjust landscape plans.
“We could have a lot of rainbow beds,” said Pat McKernan, Botanica’s landscape supervisor.
McKernan, who has worked at Botanica for three decades, normally groups similar varieties of tulips together based on color, height and bloom time, creating bold, uniform regiments of flowers that attract visitors by the thousands every March and April.
But last fall, when Botanica’s shipment of tulip bulbs arrived from the wholesaler, McKernan quickly discovered something was amiss.
“Two of the four pallets had been dumped, and we had a 30-gallon trash can full of bulbs,” he said. “I tried not to panic, but …”
Here’s the thing about tulip bulbs: They’re a mystery. You can’t tell by looking at a bulb – or feeling it, weighing it, sniffing it – what kind of flower will emerge in the spring. And you can’t tell whether that flower will bloom in early March or late April.
Sifting through the piles of bulbs, McKernan and his team couldn’t tell whether they were vivid yellow Monte Carlos or bright purple Victoria’s Secrets. They couldn’t distinguish Chinatown from Barbados or World’s Favorite from Big Brother.
“It was kind of a mess,” he said.
McKernan quickly reworked his landscape plan, pointing the undisturbed, identifiable tulips toward the garden’s most dramatic areas – red and yellow near the entrance, pink and purple around the large fountain and tall, late-blooming flowers along the path leading to the wildflower garden.
The rest? That’s anyone’s guess.
“In most of our beds, we don’t know which season the bulb is or how the colors will mix with each other,” said McKernan, who ordered 101 varieties of the spring flower this year. “It’s just kind of ‘hope for the best.’ ”
Tulips planted in the children’s garden “could be wildly mixed,” McKernan said, which is kind of fitting.
“I debated whether to put anything in to cultivate,” he said. “When they start blooming, everybody’s going to wonder: ‘What’s wrong with Pat this year?’ ”
Some visitors may appreciate the unexpected nature of this year’s garden, he said.
“People like mixed beds, and they love telling me when I’ve got an odd color in a bed,” McKernan said.
“But we try to cut them out for flower arrangements. I like them more consistent.”
Botanica got a discounted rate on this year’s bulbs because of the mix-up. And the experience – like the tulips already blooming in some areas of the garden – was another example of how anything can happen.
“We just ask everybody to be patient,” McKernan said. “And enjoy them, whatever color they are.”
Tulips, Fairies & Forts
Botanica’s welcome to spring will take place over four Saturdays starting March 25. Tulips, Fairies & Forts will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and is included in Botanica admission.
The event will include blooming tulips and other flowers as they come up, as well as games, crafts, chalk art, DJ Ronnie Choy, fairy dress-up and photo props, forts throughout the gardens and a bounce house.
Each week also will have its own special guests or features.
March 25: The Bug Lady, Mark Arts, Ulrich Museum of Art
April 1: Puddles the Clown, “Pony Tales” readings and book signing with Bonnie Bing and John Pirtle, Mark Arts
April 8: Animals from Tanganyika Wildlife Park and the Sedgwick County Zoo; Fairy Tea Party (additional cost)
April 15: Miss Heart of the Midwest, Cowtown