April is tulip month at Monticello! In this episode of A Rich Spot of Earth, we celebrate the return of our favorite tulips and share our bulb-planting practices and sources. We also look at what's going on in Monticello’s vegetable garden this month, talk about the benefits of Latin names, and highlight two flowering trees that grace our early spring in Virginia: Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) and Dogwood (Cornus florida).

Featuring Michael Tricomi, Interim Manager & Curator of Historic Gardens; Peggy Cornett, Curator of Plants; Debbie Donley, Flower Gardener; and, Robert Dowell, Senior Nursery Associate at the Center.

Michael Tricomi: It's April here at Monticello and it's glorious. As Jefferson put it, "Spring and Autumn make a paradise of our country." The trees haven't fully leafed out, so the landscape isn't really green yet, but there's still so much color. We've got pink and purple flowering trees and spring flowers in every shade from cornflower blue to neon yellow to flaming red.

This is “A Rich Spot of Earth,” a podcast about gardening and the natural world. I’m Michael Tricomi, Interim Manager and Curator of Historic Gardens at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Albemarle County, Virginia.

Last fall our gardeners planted 10,500 flower bulbs, including thousands of unusual, historic tulips. That makes April spectacular because those tulips are blooming all month. So in this episode, we'll talk about tulips. We'll also discuss what we’re doing in the vegetable garden, where asparagus, strawberry spinach and other interesting crops are popping up. And finally, we'll touch on some of the beautiful native trees that flower in April.

First, here's Debbie Donley, our flower gardener, talking tulips with curator of plants, Peggy Cornett. They begin with a question we hear from a lot of home gardeners: Are tulips perennials or do you have to plant new bulbs every year?

Debbie Donley: We do treat them like annuals, which we wouldn't do in our home gardens. But here at Monticello, we interplant so much that the bulbs would get chopped into. Plus, the first year for the tulips you get your best show. The second year you might have two or three smaller flowers. The third year, you might have four or five or six even smaller flowers. And so maybe, you know, in your home garden you could get a few new bulbs each year and then also let the others just remain. 

Peggy Cornett: One of the other problems is that when you're over planting with annuals, you're keeping the beds wet, and that causes bulbs to rot if they're left in the ground. In a commercial setting, they would dig the bulbs out after they've completed their growth, and then you dry them over the summer. In nature, where they're from originally, they grow in places that are very arid in the summer, and so they have the moisture through the winters and that's when they flower in the spring, but then the ground itself totally goes bone dry, which is what they prefer.

Michael Tricomi: Tulips are native to Turkey, Armenia, and Iran, where they get the hot, dry summers Peggy mentioned.

They were first introduced to Europe in the 1500s by the botanist, Carolus Clusius. He planted a handful of tulip bulbs in a small garden at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands--an act that led the Dutch to develop a huge business in breeding and selling tulip bulbs. We have a tulip at Monticello that was named after him. It's called Tulipa clusiana.

Peggy Cornett: It's the white and red striped species tulip. There's a story that when the Garden Club of Virginia was restoring the gardens in the 1940s, that they actually went to Edgehill, which was the home of Jefferson's daughter, Martha, and the Clusiana tulip was naturalized in the landscape, and they dug some and brought them to Monticello. So there's a real historic connection there with that species tulip. It spreads through the lawn. When the sun hits it, it's just beautiful. The petals just flatten out.

Michael Tricomi: By the 1600s, the Dutch were obsessed with Tulips. Horticulturists created new hybrids and wealthy people flaunted their taste by showing off rare, exotic varieties.

Peggy Cornett: Many of them were very striped and colorful, and the more colorful they were, the more valuable they were. But the problem was that some of the streaking and striping in the old tulips, this coloration was caused by a virus, and the virus actually destroyed the tulip. It was almost like a stock market crash where in the 1630s there were no tulips available because they all were dying from this virus.

So, these colorful tulips remained popular throughout time, and Jefferson was also obtaining some from Bernard McMahon in 1806. They had stabilized at that point. We're talking a century and a half later. The thing about any bulb, daffodils and hyacinths and so forth, is that they are portable. They could be shipped from Europe and not die in transit if they were stored properly. You can stick them in your pocket and carry it with you and plant it somewhere. It's not like transporting plants with actively growing roots. But Jefferson was probably lucky to have 50 bulbs in a bed.

Michael Tricomi: We have a lot more tulips at Monticello today than Jefferson did. They were still quite expensive in his day.

If you want to learn more about the history of tulips and what historians call "Tulipomania," there's a fantastic book by Anna Pavord, called The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad.

Michael Tricomi: We asked Debbie and Peggy to share some of their favorite tulip varieties. 

Debbie Donley: There are so many different types of tulips. There's lily-flowered, there's double tulips. There's parrot tulips. So you have many, many options to choose from. We do try to plant a number of the ones that will bloom early and later and really late so that we do have a long bloom time with the tulips.

Peggy Cornett: Debbie does a lot of thinking about how she wants to lay out the beds, not only the season of bloom, but also the colors and the combinations.

Debbie Donley: One of our favorite tulips is called Absalon. I believe it's from the 1700s. If you can picture a chocolate brown tulip with gold flames rising up through the petals, then you can imagine what this tulip looks like. It's absolutely beautiful when it's open in later in the day and the sun is shining through those petals. It's definitely one of our favorites.

Another one that is an old tulip, probably from the 1700s, is called Silver Standard. It too is a later blooming tulip, like the Absalon, but it's white with red streaking or flames coming through. It's just beautiful.

Peggy Cornett: Jefferson, when he received bulbs from Bernard McMahon in 1806, one of the varieties was called a Bizarre Tulip. It has mustard, yellow flowers marked with red and brownish black.

I still like the Keizerskroon, which we've grown for over 40 years at Monticello, and it dates to 1750. It's a yellow and red bicolor. It has a large flower. Keizerskroon means king's crown.

Debbie Donley: We have another favorite that is called Blushing Beauty. If you can picture what Dr. Seuss's flower Garden would look like, he would definitely have Blushing Beauty in it. It's a lily-flowered tulip, but it's huge. Once the sun comes out and it starts opening up, the flower itself is literally as big as your head. And the stem can twist and turn because there's a lot of weight to that head, too.

With tulips, and actually with most bulbs, it's very important that you let the foliage die back. That foliage feeds the bulb, so if you do want them to come back next year, they really need that extra nourishment from the dying leaves. You must leave them intact you can't bend them over or any of that, because that does cut the cellular pathway. One thing you can do is to plant them amongst your perennials so that as the perennials are coming up, the yellow foliage is hidden. That way also, you wouldn't be chopping into them if you're planting annuals around them like we do.

Peggy Cornett: I'm so thrilled every year when my Darwin Tulip comes back that I got from you many years ago. You said it was Pink Impressions?

Debbie Donley: Pink Impressions, yep.

Peggy Cornett: And it's just as big as it ever was. I have it planted in a ground cover in the front of my yard, so I don't really pay attention when the leaves die down, because they die down into the ground cover. It's just really thrilling to see it every year.

Debbie Donley: Darwins are great tulips because they're very large, they're very reliable at coming back again. I would definitely include them in a home garden. There are lots of color varieties within the Darwin species, and so they're great.

Another interesting thing about the tulips is they all close up at night. And so when you come out in the morning, they're all closed up tight and very pretty. Some people like them that way the best, but I prefer them as the sun starts coming out, the tulips begin opening, and by later in the day, they're just wide open and you can appreciate the inside of the tulip as well as the outside. And then also you see the sun shining through the petals and it's just beautiful.

A funny thing is we often have a watercolor painting class during the tulip time, and so the students will start painting their tulip, and as the class gets longer and longer, the flower has totally changed from their original drawing. I do warn them about that, that they need to take that into account.

Michael Tricomi: Although Jefferson didn't plant as many tulips as we do today, they still offer an insight into his vision for the flower gardens at Monticello.

Peggy Cornett: The tulip season is one of the most anticipated times at Monticello. And I think part of that is because it really defines the garden the way Jefferson intended in 1812, when he wanted the winding walk beds to be laid out in 10-foot sections. You really can see that idea of his by looking at the different color groupings of the tulips. It's not as easily visible in the summertime when there's lots of other things growing together, but the tulip season, I think, really defines his intention for laying out the beds.

The tulip season is also important, I think, because it's really showing the gardens that Jefferson was really looking forward to when he retired in 1809 as president and he was returning to Monticello to spend time with his family. We have a wonderful letter of remembrance by Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen, and she talks about Jefferson going out in the garden with the enslaved gardener Wormley Hughes, and she specifically mentions that Wormley Hughes was carrying the spade and hoe while Jefferson carried the measuring line. And I think that's a really vivid image of this interaction of Jefferson actually being there involved with the planting. And of course, the enslaved gardener, Wormley Hughes, who was so important to the family, was intimately involved with this exercise of planting bulbs in the fall. And she ended by saying, "Oh, these were happy moments for us and for him, for grandpapa."

Michael Tricomi: Last but not least, you might be wondering: where can you find special, rare, and historic tulip bulbs?

Debbie Donley: We order them from a company out of Holland called Hortus Bulborum, and it really is a bulb museum. They're very careful to document the type of bulbs and where they came from in the year and all of that.

Peggy Cornett: You order these big bulbs. They have been grown for several years. They've taken the smaller pips off of a bulb that divides and they row it out and let it grow for a couple more years until it gets up to be a big size bulb. And that's what you want is the premium bulb.

Debbie Donley: We also get bulbs from a local company in Virginia, which is Brenton Becky's Bulbs, which has a fabulous open house and display gardens and lots of bulbs that you can get. And then we order from Van Engelen Bulbs, and an assortment of different places. But those are the three main companies that we order from.

Michael Tricomi: Here are a few words from a recent Monticello visitor. Then we'll be right back.

Laura: Hi I’m Laura. I’m from Charlottesville. I’m an annual pass holder. I love coming up here, especially, my favorite time of the year is when the tulips are in bloom. 

Michael Tricomi: Last week, I sat down with Peggy and Debbie to talk about some of the vegetables we're focusing on in April.

Right now in the vegetable garden, we've been busy sowing things like spinach, lettuce, fava beans, carrots, beets, potatoes, onions. They just work a lot better directly sown into the garden. We even put in some Scorzonera or Black Salsify, because we have some of the native Salsify coming up elsewhere in the garden. We sowed some Scorzonera as well.

Some of our other crops do much better transplanted out, your brassicas, like your broccoli and cabbage. We will start those in our greenhouse, transplant them into a larger pot, and then plant them out in the garden later on. We've been transplanting lots of herbs like marjoram, coriander, anise, basil, as well as starting to get into our warm season crops like peppers and tomatoes.

The asparagus has started to come up, which is really exciting, seeing them poke out of the ground. Asparagus is a perennial. But It normally takes two to three years to really get established and to get a good harvest from them. And then it comes back and it lasts for a very long time, many years.

Very soon we'll be directly sowing our flowering beans on our bean arbor at the end of the garden, located near the asparagus square. That arbor, we just recently did some maintenance work on it, making sure that the structure's ready to go for our Caracalla, scarlet runner, and hyacinth beans to climb up it and bloom and be a nice ornamental piece in the vegetable garden.

We also were working on our hops very recently. We've been restringing our hops trellis so that they can climb up and along that structure, because they are very vigorous climbers and they will grow easily 15 feet tall.

Debbie Donley: In the flower garden, since we have so many annuals, I'm all the time finding plants that have self-sown. Do you find that in the vegetable garden as well?

Michael Tricomi: We definitely do, especially our lettuce. There's always many seeds that end up scattered on the ground, and so we always see lettuce coming up here and there in the garden. I've seen a lot of our strawberry spinach. It's similar to spinach, but it gets a nice stalk with really red berries on it, and these berries will get dispersed as you're harvesting it, and they come up really well too in the garden. The strawberry spinach is Chenopodium capitatum.

Debbie Donley: Are you not supposed to eat the fruit that comes on?

Michael Tricomi: You certainly can.

Debbie Donley: Because I was not impressed with the taste.

Michael Tricomi: I was not impressed with it.

Peggy Cornett: The fruit's not that good. It's pretty, though.

Debbie Donley: We might want to mention how important the Latin names are because so many plants have the same common name. Bachelor's buttons-- people from the south might call it something totally different, whereas each plant has only one Latin name. It seems hard at first when you're trying to learn the Latin names, but they do tell you often where that plant is from, or maybe who discovered it, or a characteristic of it.

Michael Tricomi: It also helps with plants that are related to each other. It helps with identifying disease issues and different problems that might arise, or just general care and maintenance for plants that are very similar, related to each other.

Debbie Donley: And some you wouldn't even realize they're related. I believe roses and apples are, and so they may be prone to some of the same problems.

Michael Tricomi: I have here in the Garden Book, too, 1823, so 200 years ago, the month of April, what Jefferson was growing. It's interesting, Jefferson recorded these crops in 1823 in April. He had marrowfat peas, snap beans, long haricots, tomatoes, okra, nasturtium, lima beans, scarlet runner bean, white haricots, more marrowfats, forward cucumbers, benny, squashes, gherkins, and more snap beans. So it's really interesting how he's growing cucumbers and he's starting to get a head start on his beans as well and squashes and gherkins too. We like to save some of those for sometime in May.

Peggy Cornett: It was ambitious.

Michael Tricomi: Very ambitious.

Peggy Cornett: That's also, I think, the next to the last year that Jefferson wrote in the Garden Book. That's a significant year as well.

Michael Tricomi: Jefferson, in 1823, he was 80 years old, but he was still very active in the garden, still planning it out and very interested in growing all that he could.

Finally, horticulturist Robert Dowell is here to talk with Peggy about Redbuds and Dogwoods, two native trees that flower in Virginia in April.

Robert Dowell: Anyone who's walking through the woods in Virginia right now in early April is probably firstly going to notice the Eastern Redbud. It's a very bright, vibrant pink bloom. You can see it from half a mile away. You could be driving down the interstate and you can spot the redbuds easily. It's a cheerful sight, when the forest now is kind of drab and gray and brown looking. It's native throughout the eastern US, south of Virginia all the way up towards New England.

Peggy Cornett: Its Latin name is Cercis canadensis, and that is referring to the Eastern North American continent.

Robert Dowell: A lot of trees will flower before they leaf out just to attract those early pollinators and so they can start producing fruit as early in the season as possible, and the leaves will eventually follow.

A fun fact about Redbud that I just learned is that upon close inspection you can notice that the individual flowers actually look like hummingbirds. So appreciate them from afar, but also take a closer look at the plant itself too, and you can see some interesting anatomy there.

It's a small-statured tree, usually between 20 to 40 feet tall, and it grows best on woodland edges. It really thrives in areas with open sunlight. So if you want to cultivate Eastern Redbud in your landscape, you want to give it as much sunlight as possible, so it can put on that great bloom display and also just develop a nice oval canopy shape.

Peggy Cornett: It has lovely heart-shaped leaves. It's in the pea family, and it will make seed pods that are like little flattened pea pods that get quite brittle and dark later in the season.

Michael Tricomi: Redbuds usually bloom first and then right after them the Dogwoods start to flower.

Robert Dowell: Eastern Red Dogwoods have a very beautiful natural form. It's almost like this tiered kind of look. It's very distinctive. They occupy a similar habitat as the Eastern Redbud. They like forest edges. They grow best in full sun, but they can tolerate sometimes deep shade, but they just won't grow their best in those environments. A great species for wildlife. Birds love the berries. You'll often see small dogwood seedlings along fence rows where the birds have deposited them. There's many different cultivars of dogwood, but honestly, just the straight species you find in the wild is just beautiful in its own right and a great addition to anyone's landscape. They have very noticeable white flowers that are cross shaped.

Peggy Cornett: Jefferson also observed a pale pink form that occurs in the wild, so it is a naturally occurring color variant They wouldn't use the word pink though, they would call it a flesh-colored flower. Later nurserymen and breeders and so forth started selecting to come up with the redder ones that we have today, or the dark pink ones.

Robert Dowell: There are multiple species of Dogwood. The dogwood we're referring to is Cornus florida, the White Flowering Dogwood, and that's the one that achieves small tree stature. But you also have Cornus sericea, which is the Red Twig Dogwood, and that's one that you'll often see with the very bright red stems. Landscapers will like to prune that so that the new vegetative growth, which is very vigorous, has that bright, intense red color. But you've also got Cornus racemosa, the Gray Dogwood. There's exotic dogwoods you'll see in people's landscapes, too, that aren't native to Virginia, like the Kousa Dogwood is from East Asia. That's a popular one. But the genus Cornus is quite a broad group and has many ornamental species you'll often see in people's landscapes.

Peggy Cornett: One of my favorites, and it's not as easy to grow, is the Cornus alternifolia. It has beautiful kind of burgundy-colored branches. The flowers are quite different. It's a cluster of flowers that are white and have some interesting fruit that the birds also like. I think I have the prettiest one in Virginia in my yard. I just love this tree.

The Cornus has opposite branching. That's one of the characteristics of the Cornus. But the Cornus alternifolia has alternate branching. The common name is Pagoda Dogwood, even though it's from North America.

Robert Dowell: Most trees you'll see out in the woods will have alternate branching. Oaks, hickory, birches. If you look at the twig real closely, you'll notice the buds alternate on the stem.

Peggy Cornett: Whereas opposite, it's like the branches come straight across from each other. There's not many species that have opposite branching, so it's one way you can identify plants in the wild. The viburnum have opposite branching, ash trees have opposite branching.

Robert Dowell: Maples.

Peggy Cornett: Dogwood. In fact, there's an acronym for it. It's maples, ashes, dogwood, viburnum, and I think one other thing.

Michael Tricomi: That acronym is MADCapHorse. It's an easy way to remember trees that have an opposite branching pattern: Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Caprifoliacae (the family that includes Viburnum) and Horse Chestnut.

Michael Tricomi: That's all for today. Thanks for listening. Please tell your friends about the podcast and join us again in May. In the meantime, happy gardening!

Thomas Jefferson's Favorite Vegetables

In his 1,000-foot-long kitchen garden terrace, Jefferson cultivated 89 different species and 330 varieties of vegetables. Find out which were his favorites.

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Content and story development by Michael Tricomi, Peggy Cornett, Jessica Armstrong, Robert Dowell, Debbie Donley, Joan Horn, and Chad Wollerton

Direction and editing by Joan Horn

Sound design by Dennis Hysom

Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn