Not-quite-black flower adds dark elegance to 60th festival

The black and mysterious "Queen of the Night" tulip will be featured at this weekend's 60th Tulip Fe
Albany city gardener Judy Stacey shows the "Queen of the Night" tulip in Albany’s Washington Park.
Albany city gardener Judy Stacey shows the "Queen of the Night" tulip in Albany’s Washington Park.

Spring’s annual parade of tulips gives Albany deep purples, pure whites and bright yellows.

People will seek the color this weekend, as Washington Park hosts the city’s 60th Tulip Festival. Some visitors will go to beds stocked with pink “Impressions” and their tennis ball-sized blooms. Other prospectors will prefer the egg-shaped, lavender “Barcelonas” or lush, deep red “Kingsbloods.”

Another group will search for darker grounds. They’ll look for their gothic master, the somber spokesman for the tulip family — the black and mysterious “Queen of the Night.”

“It’s known as the elusive black tulip,” said Judy Stacey, the city’s gardener. “The growers have never been able to breed a black tulip; this is as dark as they can get. So depending on what light, it can be black or it can be a very rich deep burgundy, a rich burgundy wine.”

Tulip Festival video

The “queen” and her friends are the main attractions at the festival, which begins Friday morning with a full slate of music. Performers scheduled to appear include the Spin Doctors on Saturday afternoon and Grammy-nominated singer Phoebe Snow Sunday afternoon. Tulip queens, arts and crafts vendors — sales begin Friday — and the fiery unveiling of a 15-foot steel sculpture are also on the agenda.

The flowers remain the biggest stars. Stacey and her garden crew members have planted 208,000 tulips around the city, 90,000 of them in Washington Park — most of them near Moses, the giant Biblical statue off Madison Avenue.

Many petals have been up and open for business for more than a week now.

“They do what Mother Nature tells them to do,” Stacey said, adding that warm days of late winter and early spring convinced some tulips to show up earlier than usual.

“They had their heads poking out of the ground in February,” she said. “I shouldn’t have seen them until late March at the earliest.”

Alarm clocks continued to go off early in April.

“The first flowers to bloom were not the earliest, but the mid-seasonals,” Stacey said. “They were followed by the late-season ones. The early blooms have yet to bloom; so the heat definitely affects them. The cold does not. They love the cold and the damp and the gloom.”

Extending the season

The sunny days will not rob Washington Park of much seasonal color. While some tulips will have left the party by Friday, when the festival begins, others will just be showing up.

“If I put 80,000 here and there’s only 70,000 to see, oh my that’s not a real loss, now is it?” Stacey said.

“We’ve double-planted some beds,” she added, “so we have an early showing and now the late ones are coming up behind them. So sometimes you have an overlap. Let’s say we did an early red and a late white; well, at one point you might have red and white in the bed together and the early red will fade away and the bed will become all white. That’s a way to extend the season.”

The “Queen of the Night” will still be in her courts this weekend.

“They’re marvelous because they’re a sure winner, they’re tall, they’re big, they’re dependable,” Stacey said.

Popular, too. The black queen is No. 4 on the America’s list of top 10 tulips, according to the Internet’s People who look close will notice deep maroon hues. A true black tulip does not exist in nature.

“To be truly black, the color would have to be absolutely devoid of any hues or overtones of other colors,” says Frans Roozen, technical director of the International Flower Bulb Center in Hillegom, the Netherlands. “In nature, this only happens with death. No living leaf or flower is truly black.”

For Stacey, the Queen of the Night is close enough. So are the other dark tulips she has planted in the park, the “Cafe Noir” and “Black Parrot” bulbs. She believes the darker shades stand for seriousness in otherwise jolly gardens full of reds and yellows.

“You almost want to reach out and pet it, like a jewel,” Stacey said. “And then, of course, there’s always somebody who says, ‘Oh no, I don’t want any of those dark things.’ But most people seem to love it.”

They’re not for everybody. Frank Gallo Jr., owner of Frank Gallo and Son Florist in Schenectady, said he has never taken a customer order for Queen of the Night tulips.

“It’s all in the eye of the beholder,” Gallo said. “Some people are going to look at that tulip and think it’s magnificent. Other people, based on its color and texture, are not going to like it all. They’re much more used to the pastels, the lavender, the pink, the yellow.”

Tuxedo effect

Stacey said the queens are perfect complements for white tulips — when both are in bloom, a flower bed will look like a tuxedo. The dark shades also mix well with pink, yellow and lavender.

All colors will be bright during the party’s peak hours during afternoons. Stacey said people should try to visit during early morning or early evening hours, when gray becomes part of the sky and tulips seem to begin glowing.

“Morning light and evening light are magical,” she said. “A lot of the time it will appear they have little candles in the base of these tulips.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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