Updated: Jan 4, 2022
May 26, 1996
Each May, the word spreads like wildfire through downtown Washington. K-Street lawyers and trade association lobbyists, men and women, in dresses and pumps and suits and ties plunge madly from their air conditioned offices into the 100 degree humidity of the downtown streets.
Their elbows are sharpened. If they are wise and prepared, they will have hoarded strong plastic sacks in their offices, or better yet, in their briefcases and purses, because when the moment arrives, there is no time for hesitation.
Photo: Carolyn Lochhead
Their goal is Lafayette Park, were Park Service workers have been spotted with their big garden forks and brown barrels, digging up the huge beds of magnificent Darwin Hybrid Red Oxford tulips planted each spring in the famous park in front of the White House.
Each year, downtown office workers watch and wait as the glorious red blossoms fade and then drop, and the bulbs in their naked green sit and drink up the sun. They stop the Park Service gardeners and ask when will they dig up the beds to make way for the summer annuals. Maybe next week, the workers will say, maybe in the morning, maybe in the afternoon. The only thing to do is watch and be ready.
Then the rush is on. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Those who are ready scavenge behind the workers, one hand full of dirt and bulbs, the other clinging tightly to a bag of precious White House tulips lest anyone think them unclaimed. The tourists look on in wonder. A busload of Germans strolls by issuing observations and critique. Some Japanese take snapshots. A gaggle of American teenagers fling inanities. But Washingtonians are used to living among tourists and they ignore them.
The Park Service discourages the scavenging, having come under attack for allowing unofficial people to simply snatch the bulbs. They are now distributed to charities. But places like Lafayette Park are hard to monitor, and the workers avoid confrontation with the avid.
Those who have seen the tulip beds in bloom comprehend this rite. The Park Service plants 6,500 tulips in Lafayette Park alone, accompanied by a low blue border of 18,500 grape hyacinths. There are 250,000 tulips in all, surrounding Albert Gallatin's statue at Treasury; standing in a handsome circle on the White House lawn; exhibiting themselves in the Tidal Basin's "Tulip Library," a living collection of 95 different varietal beds.
These do not even include the stunning seas of pink and yellow that grace the grand west front of the Capitol in a separate horticultural jurisdiction.
There is no city more beautiful in spring than Washington. The tulips are only part of it, and the monumental federal plantings only the tip. These are duplicated by the loving labors of the citizens of this city's lush and verdant residential districts. Washington's spring is week upon week of ever more-astonishing natural glory: The magnolias and daffodils, the famous cherry trees laden in snowlike blossom, joined by the apples. They alone would cement Washington's position as capital of Spring.
But then come the tulips, accompanied by dogwood and redbud. Just as one comes to believe that nothing could be more beautiful, the azaleas burst forth in a magnificent finale in street upon street and park upon park.
Such gardening enlightenment is why Washingtonians flock like aphids to Lafayette Park when the annual tulip digging commences. Tulips cost a lot of money, and these are among the finest.
The tulips are no doubt expensive. But let no one in some pointless folly, in some grim sense of false thrift, strip the public spaces of their beauty, or dare to imply the public's money is ill spent.
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead