Are tulips the blithering idiots of the plant world?
“They’re really quite dumb,” says Dodie Jackson. “You can fool them. You put them in a dark refrigerator, it’s cold, and they think it’s wintertime.” On second thought, tulips are also arresting, amazing, and beautiful in an extravagant sort of way, as Jackson is the first to acknowledge. Watching her nurse a Diet Coke at the West Alabama Ice House, it occurs to us that the proper metaphor for tulips is not blithering idiots but pageant contestants.
By the way, it’s unlikely that Jackson’s bulbs would be offended by her insinuations, if only because the pair have a long, complex relationship that allows for such joshing. There was a time when things were more strained, however. We’re speaking of when Jackson first moved to Houston from Denver in 1977. Like many before and since, Jackson fell in love with this place and wanted to put down roots here. It all came down to whether she could convince her tulips to do the same.
“I was determined,” Jackson remembers, her face turning fierce before dissolving into a smile. “I figured out how to do it.”
The trick was to refrigerate the bulbs for six weeks minimum, starting in October or November. In January, Jackson and her “adorable, real cute” husband plant them—4,000 of them in a typical year—in the flowerbeds of their River Oaks home (where, by the way, a few years ago they filled in the pool to make way for a greenhouse). Not surprisingly, the house becomes something of a neighborhood attraction each spring. “Honey, we’ve had more babies sitting for Easter photos than you would believe,” she laughs.
As it happens, Jackson’s connection with tulips has helped her make connections elsewhere, chiefly with the Garden Club of Houston, whose apron she has worn to our interview. It seems that around 2000, Jackson and her husband were having coffee in their breakfast room. Casting their eyes on the sea of red and pink tulips in the yard, they spied an invasive species among them—a brunette with a big camera.
“I said to Richard, ‘Do you think I ought to introduce myself?’ And he said, ‘It’s your yard.’” The woman lived around the corner, was a Garden Club member, and knew a new recruit when she saw one. “We’ve become very good friends,” says Jackson. “It was because of the tulips.”
Her rise within the club’s ranks was inevitable, and Jackson, now retired from a career in finance, is presently the GCH’s horticulture chairman, also a tireless promoter of its massive annual Bulb and Plant Mart (now held each October at St. John the Divine). “My husband and I don’t have children. When you have children, you run with people that have children,” she says. “Thanks to gardening I’ve met people that I probably would have never met.”
The GCH is involved in projects with the Museum of Fine Arts, Rienzi, the Medical Center, and more, and every couple of years, it puts on Florescence, a huge competitive flower show. The next one is in April. “It’s always a joint venture with the Museum of Fine Arts and the River Oaks Garden Club. The Garden Club of Houston is much older,” stresses Jackson with a rather obvious wink. (The GCH was established in 1924, the ROGC in 1927.) And while she isn’t one to brag, Jackson will tell you, when pressed, about the dozen Best in Show awards she has taken home from Florescence over the years, as well as her Louise Agee Wrinkle Horticulture Propagation Award, which sounds like the gardening equivalent of an Oscar for technical achievement.
For Jackson, success in the garden is all about relationships. “Plants talk to you like people,” she says. “They tell you what they want.” Having connections within the horticultural world is also invaluable. “The great thing about gardeners is that they share.” Usually, that is. When Florescence season rolls around, however, those helping hands may be replaced by claws.
“It’s like, her fern is so good,” Jackson says with a diabolical grin, “but mine’s better.” For the record, she flatly declines to relate what she’s planning to wow the judges with next April.