MT. VERNON, WASH. — WHAT'S red and yellow and has about 300,000 visitors a year?
A good answer would be Washington State's Skagit Valley in April, where windswept fields of tulips and daffodils dance with color and attract the kind of slow-driving sightseers found on the backroads of New England during fall foliage time.
Contrary to local lore, the bulb industry here is not nearly as big as that of the Netherlands. But the region does produce most of the tulip, daffodil, and iris bulbs grown in the United States. Along with Britain and Japan, it is in the second tier of world producers. Though few bulbs grown here are exported, they are shipped all over the country.
``We have the perfect climate here, and the soil is really good,'' says Eleanor Christensen, retail sales manager at West Shore Acres, one of several companies located near Mt. Vernon, halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.
The temperature during the winter is sometimes in the 30s but rarely drops below freezing, which is ideal since deep freezes harm the bulbs. Like Holland, ``we are also below sea level here'' in some places, Ms. Christensen says.
William Roozen, who moved here from Holland shortly after World War II, says there is nothing useful about being below sea level: ``It's dangerous because if the dike breaks, it floods [the land],'' he says. Still, ``the bulb ... likes what we call a maritime climate.''
Mr. Roozen is the founder of the Washington Bulb Company, the largest bulb grower in the US and perhaps in the world, according to local historian Charles Gould.
Bulbs forced to bloom
The Washington Bulb Company devotes about 1,200 acres to these springtime flowers, including 8 acres of greenhouses where the bulbs are ``forced'' - blooming at times other than their normal February/March/April cycles.
West Shore Acres, by contrast, is a more typical-sized company for this state: It has fewer than 100 acres of bulbs. It emphasizes daffodils, of which it sells about 5 million stems a year.
Growers here really have two businesses, selling both the stems - cut when they bloom - and the bulbs themselves. Sitting several inches underground, the bulbs divide in the summer season, so some are dug up to be shipped in the fall, while others remain to form next year's flower crop.
The flowers are ``the more profitable part of the business, but you couldn't have the flowers without the bulbs,'' says Marilyn Gardner, who owns West Shore Acres with her husband, John.
Flowers are big business
Together, bulbs and flowers produced in the state were a roughly $12-million business in 1989, according to Mr. Gould's book, ``History of the Flower Bulb Industry in Washington State.'' In that year, 70 million cut flowers and 70 million bulbs were sold.
``It's competitive, just like any business,'' Mrs. Gardner says. She tries to emphasize quality and service in winning customers; when a freeze ruined bulbs during the 1988-89 winter, she replaced those orders for free a year later.
As Gardner speaks, hordes of people wander in the splendid display garden nearby, which shows off the many varieties of tulips and daffodils for sale. In the shop, visitors can buy cut flowers or get catalogs for ordering bulbs.
Roozen, whose five sons now run Washington Bulb, developed an even bigger display garden, called Roozen Gaarde. His family has been cultivating bulbs since about 1700.
The growers try to anticipate which new varieties will catch on with customers. Christensen says people have been experimenting beyond traditional reds and yellows into pink, lavender, or purple tulips.