Tough and hearty, the tradition of tulips along Michigan Ave. celebrate city’s spirit, history

By Jesse Wright, Staff Writer

All along Michigan Avenue, flower boxes sit, topped with a layer of pine boughs and inches of snow, ice and street salt.

They are as gray as winter skies.

But, buried within the boxes are bulbs—thousands of tulips and hyacinth bulbs—ready to erupt into a riot of color just as soon as the mercury allows.

The seasonal routine began in the early 1990s, an initiative of Mayor Richard M. Daley and business leaders on Michigan Avenue as a way to spruce up the busy thoroughfare. In the decades since, the flowers have become nothing short of a national phenomenon.

In 2016, the American Society of Landscape Architects awarded the city and the Michigan Avenue Streetscape Association its Landmark Award for 20 years of Magnificent Mile blooms.

Chicago Department of Transportation spokesperson Mike Claffey said the flowers have found fans in cities far and wide. CDOT is now in charge of the planting program.

“Many cities have reached out to CDOT for background on how to launch a similar planting program—including New York City and San Francisco,” Claffey said in an email. “When Gavin Newsom (now governor of California) was mayor of San Francisco, he asked for and was given a tour of Chicago’s tulips on Michigan Avenue and he asked a number of detailed questions about the program.”

Maintaining the 2.3 miles of Michigan Avenue included in the program is a big job.

Claffey said each November the city plants 110,000 bulbs on Michigan from Roosevelt Road to Oak and the southern section where the planters are bigger, from Roosevelt to the river, includes 78,000 grape hyacinth.

Over eight days in November, a 10-person crew of A Safe Haven workers plant the bulbs. A Safe Haven Foundation employs at-risk youth, veterans and people recovering from substance abuse. This year’s tulip varieties are show winner, margarita, orange emperor, double negrita, apricot impression and pretty princess. Later, the beds are covered with pine boughs to protect the bulbs from extreme cold.

The flowers must be chosen carefully, as not too much can survive Chicago’s winters which can be downright arctic, even without polar vortices. But, Claffey said, when the bulbs bloom, usually in early April, it’s a treat for Chicagoans.

“They represent the spirit of Chicago,” Claffey said, adding that the city’s motto is urbs in horto, Latin for city in a garden.

“It’s a way to celebrate another winter is over in Chicago and the toughness of the city,” he said.

By May, however, it is over and the city replants the planters with summer selections. But the bulbs live on.  

“They’re transported to the Garfield Park Conservatory where each year the public is invited to pick up a bag of tulip bulbs in late May for the low, low price of zero dollars,” Claffey said.

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