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Published May 03, 2009, 12:00 AM

PRAIRIE GARDENER: Tiptoe through the tulips

If you are in hurry to see fabulous tulips in bloom, there are several sites in Iowa and Michigan that host tulip festivals. These events draw thousands who come not only to see the flowers, but to enjoy Dutch heritage, including cuisine, crafts and parades. Several years ago, the Prairie Gardener took a bus tour to western Michigan to take in the Tulip Time Festival in Holland, Mich., near Grand Rapids.

By: Darrel Koehler, Grand Forks Herald

May is a busy month for gardeners as we prepare lawns and flower and vegetable gardens for the growing season. But it also begins a cavalcade of flowers that will carry us from now through the first killing frost sometime in October.

Leading this parade will be the crocus, our earliest bloomer. Besides the ones we have in our gardens, there also will be the wild ones found on undisturbed prairie. In rapid order we move to other spring-flowering bulbs, flowering crabapples, lilacs and bleeding hearts before we get into summer with peonies and other perennials. Bringing up the rear will be the mums as we bid adieu to our gardens for another season.

Spring-flowering bulbs probably won’t be ready until at least Mother’s Day and may bloom later because of our late spring and deep frost. The Prairie Gardener was still finding ice under the mulch in late April in his quest to see if the tulips were sprouting. Once weather warms, the bulbs will put on rapid growth and we should enjoy our first real blast of spring color. If cool, moist conditions prevail, tulips and others should carry us through most of May.

Tulips and other bulbs are already in bloom in areas to the south including Omaha, Des Moines and the Quad Cities.

Tulip time

If you are in hurry to see fabulous tulips in bloom, there are several sites in Iowa and Michigan that host tulip festivals. These events draw thousands who come not only to see the flowers, but to enjoy Dutch heritage, including cuisine, crafts and parades. Several years ago, the Prairie Gardener took a bus tour to western Michigan to take in the Tulip Time Festival in Holland, Mich., near Grand Rapids.

The event is under way and continues through May 9. They are serious about tulips in Holland where more than 6 million are planted around the city. Even the berms along city streets are planted to these spring beauties. There are parades, Dutch folk dancing and concerts as well as Dutch markets featuring food, Dutch lace and arts and crafts.

While in Holland, be sure and take in the beauty of Windmill Island where an authentic windmill from Holland has been installed. The first Dutch settlers arrived in 1847 and found the climate similar to what they left behind. Be sure and take in the DeKlomp Wooden Shoe & Delft Factory. There is an adjacent tulip farm, but the day our group arrived, there was a spring downpour and we could only admire the beauty from the windows of the factory. A highlight is the Tulip Time parade in which townspeople, dressed in wooden shoes and Dutch attire, sweep down the street with soap and water in preparation for the event.

Iowa tulips

Michigan isn’t the only place that hosts tulip festivals. There are two sites in Iowa, the first in Orange City in the northwestern corner of the state not far from Worthington, Minn., while the second is in Pella, which is southeast of Des Moines. Bus companies often offer tours to these various sites if you don’t want to drive. The Pella event is at the same time as the one in Holland, Mich., and features tulip gardens, Dutch-inspired architecture and a historic village complex of buildings dating back as much as 150 years. Pella is also the home of frontier lawman Wyatt Earp. Orange City’s festival is a week later than Holland or Pella, so depending on the season, this might be a better choice to catch the tulips in full bloom. The town was fittingly named for the Netherlands’ William of Orange who established the Dutch monarchy.

Mushroom hunt

With spring busting out all over, it won’t be long before many people, particularly in the wooded areas of Minnesota, will be hunting for the elusive morel mushroom. As a child, the Prairie Gardener would head out into the forest with a brown paper bag, accompanied by other family members, to find the delectable morels. They have a short two-week season, which begins when the trembling aspens leaf out. First, they don’t resemble the white, round mushrooms most often found in grocery stores.

They are tan or brown and 2 to 6 inches tall. The caps are long and the surface is pitted with holes resembling little caves. They resemble a big tan sponge. They are most often found in a semi-shaded area around large, old trees.

A favorite spot would be where an elm stricken with Dutch elm disease fell and is rotting. Where you find one, you typically find more. White-tailed deer also enjoy them immensely. The paper bag has given way to a mesh bag to carry the mushrooms. This way the spores can fall to the forest floor and new morels will grow along your route in future years. Carefully check the mushrooms when you get them home to ensure you didn’t get the poisonous kind. Rinse in salted water to remove any insects, slice and fry in butter along with a nice steak. It’s little wonder gourmet restaurants pay $50 per pound or more for morels.

Unique tree

If you are out hunting morel mushrooms in the forest, you may come across a balm-of-gilead tree. The correct name is balsam popular, but it received this biblical name because of its very pungent aroma when new leaves bud. The smell apparently reminded early settlers of the scented trees found in Gilead, a region of ancient Palestine. There is a hymn with the name “Balm of Gilead” in the title.

Sadly, these trees are worthless. The weed trees frequently show up on cutover aspen land. The wood is weak and wet and no usable for paper making, lumber or even firewood. If you use it for fence posts, they will actually sprout. The only redeeming feature is the very fresh aroma. We called these trees “bummies” and they were frequently just toppled with a chain saw, falling to the ground to rot.

Depot opens

More than a decade ago, the Prairie Gardener wrote a Christmas garden column on the former Northern Pacific Railway passenger station in Wadena, Minn. There were concerns the brick structure, erected in 1915, would be torn down. Townspeople took over the site. There also is an adjacent bandstand and park.

Now known simply as The Depot (it’s on the National Register of Historic Places), it will be open as a museum and visitors center from Memorial Day through September. No fee will be charged. Summer travelers often use U.S. Highway 10, which passes through town. While passenger trains no longer stop in Wadena, the wonderful old building with a myriad of memories survives.

Koehler is the Herald’s garden columnist. His column is published every Sunday during the growing season. Send garden questions to him in care of the Grand Forks Herald, Box 6008, Grand Forks ND 58206-6008. Tune in the weekly gardening show airing at 4:10 p.m. Thursdays on KNOX Radio 1310 (A.M.).

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