An April heat wave led to a 'superbloom' of tulips at this Vermont farm
Emily von Trapp’s family has been farming on a high plateau above the Mad River Valley for three generations. Beyond their field, the green mountains loom large, against an open sky.
When I got there, her dad was listening to Andrea Bocelli while he worked in one of the greenhouses.
At von Trapp Flowers, Emily grows more than 75 varieties of tulips. She looks for cultivars that catch your eye when you pass them, that make you stop to look closer.
“There are more than 3,000 different varieties of tulips,” she said. “There are the double peony style, that are a little more dramatic and drape-y and have more movement. And there are parrot tulips that you know, kind of open up with these really dramatic ruffley petals. And then fringe tulips, that are more like a standard Darwinian tulip… but that have all that cool fringe on the end.”
She grows her tulips in crates that get moved between warm greenhouses and a cooler garage.
“There’s a lot of shuffling and shifting. So we call it tulip CrossFit and tulip Tetris,” she said of her process.
For much of the winter, the tulips sit in suspended animation, packed in crates of compost that are stacked high in something called “the snow bunker” — a shipping container that she buries in snow.
In order to get fresh blooms from January through May in Vermont, she pulls the crates out when she’s ready for a batch of tulips to bloom.
It’s a meticulous and labor-intensive process, and Emily is so good at growing tulips this way that flower farmers from all over the country come to her to learn how to do it.
She relies as much as she can on passive cooling and on heat from the sun. She opens and closes garage doors. She vents greenhouses. And for 13 years, it’s worked for her.
But this year was different. In April, towns all over Vermont saw record high temperatures into the 80s for the better part of a week.
Emily and her crew packed as many tulips as they could into a cool garage. But it wasn’t enough.
“I think all the blood must have drained from my face, because I just … was so shocked to see everything completely blown open,” Emily said. “And that's when I was like, ‘OK, there's too many flowers here for us to handle just in this upcoming week, for our regular markets.’”
Emily sold all the flowers she could, but had a few thousand flowers that were destined to go to waste. She didn’t want them to fade away before people could enjoy them.
So she called the Joslin Memorial Library in Waitsfield, and asked if she and her crew could put some crates on the library steps. Soon they were lined in a sea of tulips with names like apricot parrot, belle song, sunrise dynasty and foxy foxtrot.
“People have come multiple times throughout the day with groups, families taking pictures, taking it in," said librarian Jason Butler. "It’s really been a beautiful thing to see, to be a part of."
He said Emily’s tulips make people feel proud of their community.
“In the world that we live in, sometimes we have to work a little harder to find beauty,” Butler said. “And you know, sometimes it finds us.”
Dave Sellers runs the Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design down the street. He liked that the tulips showed up without explanation.
“Giving a delight on the street just for the fun of it? You know, like, OK, what a good idea! Maybe people will do more of this,” Sellers said.
One of Emily’s CSA customers convinced his company to buy 1,000 stems to help her out. They donated them to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Vermont, and to Wake Robin, a local retirement home. Emily also dropped off some tulips at Waitsfield Elementary School.
“It’s clear with all of these environmental shifts that I probably need to have a backup plan."Emily von Trapp
Kaiya Korb is the principal there. She says this isn’t the first time Emily has given her flowers away. It’s something Emily is known to do regularly, if someone in the community has something going on in their life, or appears in need of some joy.
“They'll just appear from the tulip fairy,” Korb said. “So that's a practice that she makes, of spreading that joy all the time. And it just came in great abundance as a result of all that sunshine.”
But this time, it was all at a financial loss to Emily, who even had one crate of tulips stolen from the library steps.
And as the climate changes, it’s likely Vermont’s flower growers and farmers will have to contend with more early season heatwaves.
“Spring has been odd,” Emily said. “You know, like I felt like the last couple years we’ve gone from kind of like winter straight into summer.”
Since 2005, Vermont’s growing season has averaged about a week longer than it was in the decades prior. But we’re also seeing more erratic weather, like drought interspersed with periods of heat followed by heavy rain.
Rebecca Maden with the University of Vermont Extension says the growers she works with are worried.
“The spectrum of risk is just growing so wide, in that it’s like, within an unpredictable profession, there’s even more unpredictability,” Maden said.
But Maden says farmers — especially flower growers — are resourceful and determined to keep doing what they do.
Emily says she can survive this year’s preponderance of tulips, and she’s grateful for the support of her community and customers.
But she takes a lot of pride in the way she farms, like using the snow that falls on her land as her main source of cooling. A warming climate might mean she has to change that.
“It’s clear with all of these environmental shifts that I probably need to have a backup plan,” she said. “It would have helped when we had that heatwave if I’d been able to flip a switch and throw an AC unit on and keep things extra cold. So yeah. It’s something we’re thinking about for the future.”
Ultimately, she says she’s at the mercy of Mother Nature.