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Rotten timing

The Baltimore Sun

Not everything is coming up tulips at Guilford's famed Sherwood Gardens.

Sure, there are plenty of flower beds for visitors to enjoy - dazzling displays of pinks, reds, yellows, purples and blazing oranges. But something is different.

Unlike any previous tulip season at this 6-plus-acre urban oasis, two beds lay bare and many more are sparsely blooming. Maybe 25 percent to 30 percent of the 70,000 tulips planted last fall didn't come up correctly, estimates Bruce Barnett, a Guilford Association board member who oversees Sherwood Gardens.

Walking through the grass that frames the beds, Barnett gestures to a circular plot of what was to be deep purple "Black Parrot" tulips. It's all dirt and mulch, with just a few wimpy stems poking through. Then Barnett points to a nearby spread of gorgeous "Red Georgettes."

"You've got this one right here, next to this one," he says. "It makes no sense."

So what happened? Barnett, a Johns Hopkins physicist, is trying to find out. He and a representative from the Dutch bulb supplier dug up samples yesterday morning, to be flown back to the company's headquarters for analysis.

The leading theory on the tulip problem is the wild weather - which included a Christmas that was warmer than Easter.

The gardens might not be perfect this season, but they're still drawing the usual crowd of awe-struck visitors, young picnickers, and parents with toddlers and cameras.

Guilford residents call Sherwood an urban treasure that they share with the public. The city contributes about $15,000 each year, but the bulk of the funding, more than $70,000, comes from private donations.

The gardens got their start when petroleum magnate John W. Sherwood built his ornate mansion and landscaped his lot in the mid-1920s. After Sherwood died in 1965, the Guilford Association took over the gardening and opened the area to the public.

In recent years, thousands of admirers come for tulip season, starting when the buds poke through in late March to when they're dug up and sold for 25 cents each on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

On a warm evening this week, painter Manzar Rassouli-Taylor sat near the northeast corner of the gardens working on a pastel sketch of the pink tulip stands before her.

"I really enjoy coming here. It's like a dream world. It's enchanting," she says. Rassouli-Taylor has lived in Guilford for 22 years and says Sherwood has inspired about a dozen of her landscapes.

She says she has noticed differences in the tulips this year but knows that Barnett and the many gardeners work hard to keep the space beautiful.

The same evening, Paul and Mary Kay LePage of Towson strolled through Sherwood. They, too, noted that the tulips didn't look quite right.

"It just seems like there's an awful lot missing," Paul LePage says.

He recalled his first visit to the gardens, about 40 years ago, when the tulips and the azalea trees bloomed together. "It was spectacular," he says.

Sherwood's azaleas are blooming a bit late this season, too.

Barnett says the past few tulip seasons have been similarly breathtaking, "Monet couldn't have done better," he says,

And those recent memories - the way the sea of yellow tulips blended seamlessly into a shock of purple ones, with lush azaleas highlighting the color schemes - may make this year all the more disappointing.

At first it was natural to blame the squirrels.

Tulip bulbs are caviar to squirrels. Each year they make off with hundreds. But "they can't possibly eat that much," says Rene Pallace, a longtime Sherwood gardener and Guilford Association secretary.

Seeing mounds of dirt instead of beautiful blooms, the LePages and other visitors feared that miscreants had dug up the bulbs for themselves. But Barnett says the gardens have never had that sort of problem.

Being a curious scientist, Barnett had to see for himself what was going on. He unearthed some of the unblossomed bulbs and says he found "a squishy mush."

"It was just goo," he said, comparing the texture to a one-minute boiled egg.

The decayed bulbs span all different tulip varieties and all different sections of the property.

In a visual analysis Barnett conducted last week, he found that fewer than half the bulbs bloomed in 18 of the 37 beds. The most obvious problems were in the two small empty beds and in two others with only about 10 percent of their usual crop. The rest of the missing tulips are apparent only to those such as Barnett, people who know the gardens inside and out.

Giving a tour of Sherwood to two visitors, Barnett spotted nuances in the tulip beds the way a fussy father might notice a cowlick in his child's coiffed hair.

The yellow tulips that run along a plot framing the Sherwood mansion aren't as filled in as usual. Only about half of the "Yellow Purissima" and "Flaming Purissima" are up.

"I know people still like it," Barnett says, but he wants to know what happened - and what can be done to prevent a recurrence.

Virginia Harmon, gardener at Bartholdi Park at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, says the region's "false spring " and the freeze at Easter are the likely culprits.

Here's what she thinks happened: The long, wet fall and then unusually warm winter, with seven days at 60 degrees or higher in January, was enough for some bulbs to start sprouting.

Then came a roller coaster of freezes and warm-ups - 76 degrees on March 22 in Baltimore followed by Easter weekend's record snowfall and then record low temperature of 26 degrees on April 9.

Harmon says that last cold snap probably dealt bulbs the death blow, causing the water that had seeped into the stems and meristems to freeze. "That would make the entire bulb rot," she says. "It becomes hollow."

At Bartholdi, Harmon says, tulip bulbs were planted 2 inches apart with a thick layer of mulch and pansies on top to shield them. In areas where road salt and wind swept away the pansies, the tulip bulbs did not fare well.

She described finding damaged bulbs - "slimy, rotten in the center ... like a cored apple" - similar to what Barnett dug up.

The rest of the crop, she says, turned out beautifully.

Just as they've done every year for the past three decades at Sherwood, workers with the Arc of Baltimore planted tulip bulbs about 6 to 8 inches apart, says Don Watts, director of contract services for Arc.

"We didn't do anything differently," he says. "It's a strange thing this year. I don't think we've ever lost so many."

Arc also planted 15,000 tulip bulbs from the same Dutch company outside the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn, and they're all doing fine, Watts says.

Arc is helping to research what might have gone wrong at Sherwood. Watts says that Sherwood's especially moist soil - the area once featured a boating lake - could have exacerbated the rot.

The bulb company, Van Eeden Bros., will report its findings in a few weeks, Barnett says.

In the meantime, visitors will keep admiring the gardens, and those who care for the grounds will continue puzzling over this year's tulip mystery.

"Nothing makes sense," says Pallace, who lives just steps away from the tulips. "But that's the fun of gardening."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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