To say that tulips are a big deal in the Skagit Valley would be a massive understatement. Just looking around the town of Mount Vernon one sees a huge smoke painted with tulips and tulip motifs worked into architecture and bridges. Several business are named for the flowers, such as the Tulip Inn. It’s a big business and it all comes to a head during the month of April when the tulips are in bloom. That’s when the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival takes place.
This year marks the 35th Anniversary of the Tulip Festival, but tulips have been an important crop in the area for much longer. The industry started on our very own Samish Island in the early 1900s. According to a recent article in the Skagit Valley Herald…
In the early 1900s, Samish Island resident Mary Brown Stewart ordered Skagit County’s first tulip bulbs from Holland, planting the first one in her yard in 1906.
Mary and her husband William Stewart settled in Skagit County in 1903. It was there on the couple’s 40 acres that Mary’s tulips began attracting attention — first from her neighbors, some who never thought to grow something they couldn’t eat — and later others in the region.
According to the Skagit County Historical Museum, Mary soon had a small mail-order bulb business and is credited with starting the county’s tulip bulb industry.
Now two large planters, Roozengaarde and Tulip Town are the main growers in the area. The flowers themselves are harvested and sold, but the most important products are the bulbs themselves. The bulbs are planted sometime in the fall and each spring fields in the Skagit River Flats between the towns of Mount Vernon and La Conner burst into color.
My first experience with the Tulip Festival was sometime in the mid-1990s. Laura and I had come out over spring break to visit her mom. Like many first time visitors, we were blown away with the seemingly endless fields of flowers. At that time you could park on the side of the road and wander into the fields. I took tons of photos using a 35mm Nikkormat SLR that had belonged to Laura’s father. Here are a couple from that trip, including a much younger version of me standing in the tulip fields.
Laura and I had been watching the tulip progress in anticipation of this spring’s event. First there was the Daffodil Festival in March, centered around La Conner. Toward the end of March the tulips were just starting to show color as the daffodils were fading. We visited Roozengaarde’s display garden to take a few “before” photos – before the blooms, before the crowds, and before they started charging admission.
About the time that the blooms were breaking out the weather turned crappy, so Laura and I didn’t really venture out much more. The week that Houston was with us was our first real trek out into tulip land. We drove past a couple of fields and found one place where we could pull off the road and park.
This was the only spot we found that you could pull off the road and get to the fields for free. One big difference between this year and our visit in the 1990s was that there were more “No Parking” signs and the places that did have parking were charging for it. I don’t blame them. It was crowded and the people were crazy.
We decided to bite the bullet and drive on around to Roozengaarde. This was a Wednesday and the crowds and traffic were already bad.
We paid our admission and headed on in. The display gardens looked very different from when Laura and I had visited earlier in the month.
There were masterful displays of the bulbs available through the Roozengaarde catalog. Woven through the plantings were shapes and designs only available if viewed from above. Fortunately I had my wide-angle GoPro on a long selfie-stick so that I could hold it over my head and get some good shots.
Laura’s favorites were an orange-purple-yellow combination. These were three different cultivars that were slightly variegated. They had the effect of fading from one color to the next when planted together.
Behind the display gardens were the open fields. With the recent rains these were quite muddy, but we headed out anyway.
Later in the week Laura had to fly to Chicago for a meeting, leaving Houston and me to explore the Tulip Street Festival in downtown Mount Vernon. It was a typical street fair, with artisan booths and musicians. We stopped to listen to the Prozac Mountain Boys play some Bluegrass. At one of the casino booths we were each given four decks of used cards. The decks had holes drilled in them so that they could no longer be used in the casinos, but they would work fine for home. You don’t get that in the street fairs in our area.
The weather for the weekend was beautiful, so that’s when all hell broke loose as far as traffic and crowds are concerned. Saturday Houston and I didn’t venture into the tulip fields but stayed safely on the island. On Sunday I had to drive him down to the airport, then pick up Laura on her return from Chicago. As we drove south all of the exits for Mount Vernon were backed up about a mile onto the interstate. I was glad to be going the opposite direction.
Houston was back home in Georgia and Laura was back with me on the island. After recovering from her trip we decided to take one more trip out to the fields on Tuesday. We figured a morning trip early in the week might be better than the weekend madness. We decided to check out Tulip Town, since we’d never been there.
At Tulip Town there was a charge for admission, as with Roozengaarde. Large parafoil kites were flying overhead, as if the fields of color were not enough of an attraction. After paying our entry fee we entered a barn converted into retail and display space. Out back there were more display gardens, but nowhere near as elaborate as Roozengaarde’s.
The main attraction here were the fields. The bands of color were closer together, creating more of a rainbow effect. There were only a couple of rows of each cultivar.
For an additional fee you could take a tractor ride around the field. We decided to stay on foot.
It just so happened that this was “‘Dins Day”, a fundraising effort for Furman University (‘Dins being short for Paladins.) In addition to giving money, they wanted folks to post selfies in purple shirts. I had worn my purple shirt, but Laura thought that photos in front of purple tulips would be perfect.
It looked like some of the flowers were just slightly past prime. It was also apparent that this was a working tulip farm. Workers were “deadheading” a couple of rows of flowers and a tractor was plowing between them. These would soon be harvested for bulbs.
We continued on around the Tulip Town fields eventually making it back to the display barns. We found it interesting, but really liked Roozengaarde better. We decided to make one more trip back there. Since it was a sunny day the crowds were even larger than when we had been here last week. Didn’t matter. We still enjoyed the colors. Here, too, it was obvious that the flowers wouldn’t be around for much longer. We enjoyed them while we could.
It could be overwhelming. As a photographer I found myself taking many of the same shots over and over. After awhile even fields of color in a photograph can get monotonous, so you have to look for variety. I would look for interesting lighting, where the tulips were made translucent by the sun’s backlighting.
I also played around with depth of field. Increasing the aperture narrows the depth of field, so only flowers within the target range are in focus and everything else is blurred out. You can also achieve this with a long telephoto.
My favorite targets were the anomalies – a single red tulip in a field of yellow, or vice versa.
With my GoPro/Selfie Stick setup I could do more experimentation. Not only was I able to get a wide-angle view from above, but I could hold the camera directly over a grouping for some interesting overhead shots.
The best use of the GoPro was to place it deep within the flower beds. I was able to get shots of the tulips reaching skyward. I even got a couple of selfies as the wide angle captured me, too.
There are still a few flowers out in the fields and there are even some fields of daffodils still in bloom. We’ll probably ride by them, but I don’t think we will actively wander through the fields again. I’m just glad that we were once again able to experience this incredible display of color. I couldn’t possible post all of my photos here, so here’s a link to the entire photo album on Flickr.