The Pacific Northwest Tulip Palette

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Tulips dominate the landscape in Skagit Valley, Washington, and draw visitors worldwide during its annual festival.
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One doesn't have to look far to find a tulip of any color in Skagit Valley, Washington.

Buried beneath fertile Skagit Valley fields rest thousands of tulip bulbs. Through autumn windstorms and floods they wait. Through winter’s ice and snow they wait. Finally, in the spring, green shoots break through the soil, then leaves and buds, followed by one of the greatest color shows in Washington State.

Visitors from around the world come to see the famous fields of red, yellow, white, purple and pink flowers. They can’t resist. A steady stream of tour buses, vans, cars, trucks and bicycles fill Skagit County’s two-lane roads. First stop, the display gardens. There, in rainbows of color, tulips are grouped with hyacinths, daffodils and other spring blooms. Landscaped to perfection, it’s a sensual overload. By mid-morning, when garden walkways become crowded, it’s time to head for the fields. Acre after acre shimmers with eye-popping brilliance.

Blooms are easily viewed just a stroll from the road. However, it’s worth taking time to walk far out into the field, until completely alone with the tulips. The most distant corner becomes a quiet place of reflection and appreciation. The only sounds might be the hum of a tractor in the background or chirping birds nearby. As you stand there, a breeze off the Puget Sound water gently nudges blooms into bands of swaying color.

The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

You might say the blazing colors of the Roozen family tulip fields started it all. Or at least inspired it.

When William Roozen left Holland for the United States in 1947, he brought with him a background in the bulb business. Beginning with just five acres, Roozen’s hard work and expertise allowed his business to flourish. He acquired the Washington Bulb Co. in 1955, guiding and expanding it. Five of his sons now operate the business, and in addition to tulips, the company markets daffodil bulbs and iris rhizomes, green peas and wheat.

By the 1980s, his acres of colorful tulips drew thousands of visitors.

Every April, as the blossoms opened, crowds appeared. The acres of red, yellow, purple and white flowers unintentionally created a party atmosphere.

In 1984, the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce and local tulip growers cooperated to officially create The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. Now an independent event with its own board of directors, it is sponsored by local government and more than 250 businesses and individuals.

Nearly 1 million visitors enjoy the tulips during the month-long celebration each April. Most park their cars in designated areas and walk through the fields and display gardens. Others choose to join a guided bicycle tulip tour and pedal from site to site, or top it all off with a view of the blooms by helicopter.

The festival is more than just tulip fields. Visitors are offered a variety of other attractions, including two major display gardens, Roozengaarde and Tulip Town, art shows, concerts, salmon barbecues and visits to an alpaca farm. The Skagit County Historical Museum and Padilla Bay Interpretive Center also welcome visitors.

An extended stay in the area might include a drive to the majestic Cascade Mountains just east of Skagit County or a ferry ride through Puget Sound’s beautiful San Juan Islands. Investigate each by clicking on: www.North.Cascades.National-Park.com or www.TravelSanJuans.com. Browse the complete list of tourist treasures at www.SkagitTourism.com.

Timing is everything

Peak season is seldom the same time as the previous year. Everything depends on the weather. Cool and wet days may delay the blooms; a mild winter with early spring sunshine gives bulbs a boost. Visitors who arrive too early in the season will see only green fields. And if they arrive too late, there’s the risk that farmers’ tractors will have “topped” the tulips, leaving rows of naked stems and heaps of faded, wilted petals. Check the Washington Bulb Co.’s website at Tulips.com and click on “bloom update and map” for a current bloom status.

Expect the unexpected

The locations of fields change from year to year, and the weather teases constantly. Snow-capped Mount Baker may stand out against a blue sky, peeking over the Cascade foothills. The next season, showers inundate the valley for days on end. When the ground is soaked from rainstorms, walkways turn into slippery mud. Tractors drive through puddles, making wheel tracks that harden into bumpy tread marks when the sun returns. But standing water also creates delightful mirror images, as tulips reflect in puddles like rows of Monet paintings. Whether visitors arrive wearing boots or sunglasses, each season is unique with new and fresh surprises.