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TULIPS : Petal Pusher : Peak season is here for the showy Dutch blooms. An Oxnard man is the only local commercial grower.


Near Rotterdam, Netherlands, Wim Zwinkels tended to rows of brilliantly colored tulips, which he cultivated for the fresh-cut flower market. Today, the marketplace for Zwinkels' Technicolor blooms is no longer Europe. For the past four years, his Pleasant Valley Flowers company in Oxnard has produced tulips and other Dutch blooms that have found their way into bouquets and flower arrangements across the U.S.

"It's my specialty," Zwinkels said recently. "Basically, we grow any shape or color."

A "specialty" endeavor indeed. Zwinkels, 46, figures he is the lone commercial tulip grower locally. (A small number of tulips are grown in the Carpinteria area.)

There is a simple explanation for his tulip exclusivity, Zwinkels said. It costs him about 15 cents for each imported tulip bulb. That translates into an expensive investment, one that other local wholesale cut-flower growers shy away from.

Sprouted from bulbs and raised in shade houses to protect the flowers from direct sunlight and the elements, Zwinkels' tulip harvest begins around Christmas and continues through mid-April.

As one might expect, the late winter-early spring months are his most lucrative period. Valentine's Day, Easter and Mother's Day create flower-buying frenzies, and tulips rank near the top of floral gift-giving options.

"We grow about 10 different colors," he said. "About 50% of them are varying shades of pink." The Angelique is a unique, soft whitish pink, while the Don Quixote burns a hot pink. Other hues include reds, oranges, yellows and exotic-looking bicolors.

The character and height of the tulip--a native of Turkey--can vary as much as its color, Zwinkels said. Some appear stately and formal; others are dainty and whimsical.

Take for instance the Parrot tulips. Unlike the familiar strains with rounded petals, the Parrot features a large, long bloom with deeply fringed and ruffled petals. Other types are etched with finely fringed edges.

"Normally, tulips have a single set of six petals," Zwinkels said. "We also grow some that are doubles. They have 12 petals."

Tulips grown in home gardens adapt best to cold climates, so in warmer Southern California they generally bloom from March through May, according to Mike Setterfield of Green Thumb Nursery in Ventura. "A real warm spell can bring them out even earlier than that," he said.

Don't expect your local nursery to be carrying any tulip bulbs now, though. Bulbs would have to have been planted around October to expect any blooms this time of year, Setterfield said.

Here's a tip for home gardeners planning to plant tulips in the future: "Before planting, we advise people to place the bulbs in the refrigerator for about a week to simulate winter conditions," Setterfield said. "It just doesn't get cold enough in this area otherwise."

If you are thinking of purchasing cut tulips anytime soon, you're assured of finding well-stocked shelves--and moderate prices.

"They're in abundance right now," said Patti Tovar of Dale's Country Florists in Westlake Village. "You'll find prices are best this time of year."

Most tulips sold during fall and winter are imported from Holland, Tovar said. "We try to keep our prices stable during that time, but wholesale prices are much higher." Prices come down this time of year, she said, because wholesalers are purchasing tulips grown in the U.S.

Purchased singly--maybe as a friendly gesture for a mate--a tulip will cost about $2, Tovar said. "That comes with greens, filler (such as baby's breath), plastic wrap and bow-tied," she said. Not bad. Comparably, the gallant long-stem rose is likely to cost around $6.

Once purchased, cut tulips will last about three to five days, Tovar said. "You'll want to change the water on a daily basis and give the stem bottoms a fresh cut. Keep them out of direct sunlight too."

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