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Tulips in the Walled Garden: A Brief History

Posted on 03/09/2011 by Amy Dangelico Comments(1)

Each spring, thousands upon thousands of beautiful and brightly colored tulips fill the formal flowerbeds of the Walled Garden. Their vivid hues—this year, boasting shades of yellow, white, orange, and purple—are a favorite part of the season for many guests.

But preparation for the show actually begins long before warmer weather arrives.

“Planting for spring in the Walled Garden begins months before you see the results,” explains Parker Andes, director of Horticulture. “One reason we get continuous color is because we plant several varieties of up to six bulbs per hole!”

In honor of the start of this seasonal celebration, let’s take a quick look at the history of tulips in the Walled Garden.

The Vegetable and Flower GardenThe Walled Garden, 1895

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted originally envisioned the Walled Garden as a multipurpose space, providing fine fruits and vegetables as well as fresh flowers for Biltmore House. The design was inspired by English kitchen gardens, which were often walled to protect them from wind and wild animals.

George Vanderbilt, however, did not share this vision. Instead, he thought the Walled Garden should be one of “ornament, not utility.” While fruits and vegetables were grown there intermittently, most of them were gradually phased out over time.

The Earliest Hint of TulipsTulips in the Walled Garden, 1930

It is difficult to say exactly when tulips made their debut in the Walled Garden. However, one letter in our archives tells us the blooming bulbs have been planted there for almost a century.

On April 14, 1922, Estate Superintendent Chauncey Beadle wrote to Cornelia Vanderbilt:

The tulips in the walled garden are so glorious that we are trying out an experiment of sending you a box today by express for Easter. We shall hope they will bring you something of their original beauty and charm to make Easter even more wonderful. Spring is very much advanced here, even the yellow rambler roses are opening. 

The showy flower was perhaps chosen for the dramatic beds of the Walled Garden as an homage to the Dutch heritage of the Vanderbilts—as is the term “Biltmore.” The name selected for the family’s country retreat derives from “Bildt,” the town in Holland where George Vanderbilt’s ancestors originated, and “more,” an Old English word for open, rolling land.

Tulips have served as a status symbol for the Dutch since the height of “Tulipmania” in the mid-1600s when speculation on rare bulbs created an investment bubble and the price of one bulb was equal to ten years of income.

The Tradition ContinuesView of BH from Walled Garden

Displays highlighting tulips have long been a favorite element of the Walled Garden. Even before Biltmore House opened to the public in 1930, the Vanderbilts allowed some public access to the area a few days a week during spring so that locals and out-of-state visitors alike could enjoy estate gardens in bloom.

This tradition continues today with Biltmore Blooms, our seasonal celebration of the estate’s ever-changing progression of springtime color. Join us as we delight in the more than 50,000 tulip bulbs that lend their dramatic colors to the Walled Garden.

Archival Images
First: The Vegetable and Flower Garden (now the Walled Garden), circa 1895
Second: Tulips in the Walled Garden, circa 1930

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Posted on 03/20/2017 By Debbie S

My husband's mother's family were Vanderbilts. My understanding was that the first Vanderbilts were very involved in the speculation of the black tulip. It was one reason they emigrated to America.

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