STEVENSBURG, Va. — I bought a bunch of 10 tulips for $6.99 the other day and stuck them on my desk. One day, the buds were tight and pale; the next day, they were about the size of a plum and similar in color. They lifted my spirits, lasted for days and brought a glimpse of spring.
I picked them up at a grocery store a couple of blocks from the office. Nothing strange about that, but here's the weird thing: I might well have seen the same bunch being grown and gathered a few days earlier in an enormous greenhouse just outside Culpeper, Va. I say might because one bunch was hard to see amid roughly 1 million tulips in hydroponic cultivation at the glazed quarters of a company called Fresh Tulips USA, in Stevensburg. It's one of the largest tulip factories in the world. A Dutchman named Coen Haakman is the operations manager.
It probably helps to be Dutch to undertake an enterprise that involves mass production of the tulip. Greenhouse growers in the Netherlands raise 1.5 billion cut tulips a year, although fewer of those blooms today are making it to the American marketplace.
With the rise of high-volume supermarket floral departments, Haakman and his business partners figured that by bringing Dutch methods and techniques to the mid-Atlantic, they could meet consumer demand for cheap and cheerful tulips while cutting out middlemen and delays in shipping.
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He came to Virginia in 2004 with a plan to grow 5 million tulips a year. Seven years later, he and his Dutch grower, Hans Meester, and about 100 employees churn out 45 million in five greenhouse bays covering eight acres.
In the dead of winter, it's a nice place to be, especially with the overhead lines of hanging Boston ferns. They number 32,000 and function to shade and cool the greenhouse while generating additional income through sales. Early February is high season; the glass houses are empty only in high summer.
The company ships about a million tulips a week to stores including Whole Foods Market and Wegmans in markets as far west as Dallas, north to Boston and south to Miami. In mid-February, the production more than doubles for an annual peak of tulips in three colors: red, white and pink.. These varieties are all Triumph tulips, by name Ile de France, Jumbo Pink and White Marvel.
With tulips, timing is everything. The task is made somewhat easier for Haakman because the bulbs themselves are farmed by sister companies in the Netherlands, France and Chile.
In Europe, new bulbs are harvested in July. Then climate-controlled storage takes over. First, the bulbs are kept warm enough for next year's embryonic tulip to form. But to trick the flowers into greenhouse bloom — gardeners call it forcing — the bulbs must be chilled for 16 to 18 weeks, including the two-week voyage to the United States.
Haakman shows me the room where the shipped boxes are stored, and the air is filled with the roar of a fan and the blast of cold air. Massed tulip bulbs can produce enough ethylene gas to mess up their eventual flowering, hence the frequent forced ventilation.
After the dry bulbs have initiated a little root growth, they are taken out of cold storage and "potted up" for growth, except there is no pot and no soil. As the bulbs roll down a conveyor belt, workers cull rotten bulbs and place the healthy ones, 100 at a time, on a horizontal board. A peg spears the base of each bulb, allowing the board to sit in a black plastic tray, where the bulbs grow. Lined up on the greenhouse floor, the trays are filled with water and a little liquid fertilizer, and the bulbs shoot up in the 65-degree air, lowered to the 50s at night. Robotic watering arms move across the acres of trays several times a day to keep the growing bulbs happy.
The stems are harvested just as the buds begin to show color. After a night in cold storage, they go to a bouquet production room, where the tulips are bundled, tied, de-bulbed and wrapped.