The “Tulip Bed” is an English folktale recorded by Mrs. Bray in The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, Vol. 1, (1879). This version comes from the Internet Sacred Text Website.
NEAR a pixie field in this neighborhood there lived on a time an old woman who possessed a cottage and a very pretty garden, wherein she cultivated a most beautiful bed of tulips. The pixies, it is traditionally averred, so delighted in this spot, that they would carry their elfin babies thither, and sing them to rest. Often at the dead hour of the night a sweet lullaby was heard, and strains of the most melodious music would float in the air, that seemed to owe their origin to no other musicians than the beautiful tulips themselves; and whilst these delicate flowers waved their heads to the evening breeze, it sometimes seemed as if they were marking time to their own singing. As soon as the elfin babies were lulled asleep by such melodies, the pixies would return to the neighboring field, and there commence dancing, making those rings on the green which showed, even to mortal - eyes, what sort of gambols had occupied them during the night season.
At the first dawn of light the watchful pixies once more sought the tulips, and though still invisible could be heard kissing and caressing their babies. The tulips, thus favoured by a race of genii, retained their beauty much longer than any other flowers in the garden; whilst, though contrary to their nature, as the pixies breathed over them they became as fragrant as roses; and so delighted at all this was the old woman who possessed the garden, that she never suffered a single tulip to be plucked from its stem. At length, however, she died; and the heir who succeeded her destroyed the enchanted flowers, and converted the spot into a parsley bed, a circumstance which so disappointed and offended the pixies that they caused it to wither away; and indeed for many years nothing would grow in the beds of the whole garden. But these sprites, though eager in resenting an injury, were, like most warm spirits, equally capable of returning a benefit; and if they destroyed the product of the good old woman's garden, when it had fallen into unworthy hands, they tended the bed that wrapped her clay with affectionate solicitude. For they were heard lamenting and singing sweet dirges around her grave; nor did they neglect to pay this mournful tribute to her memory every night before the moon was at the full; for then their high solemnity of dancing, singing, and rejoicing took place, to hail the queen of the night on completing her silver circle in the skies. No human hand ever tended the grave of the poor old woman who had nurtured the tulip bed for the delight of these elfin creatures; but no rank weed was ever seen to grow upon it; the sod was ever green, and the prettiest flowers would spring up without sowing, or planting, and so they continued to do till it was supposed the mortal body was reduced to its original dust.
If we deconstruct this folktale a bit, the meaning in the story becomes clear. Let's start with tulips. What does a tulip represent? Are tulips different in any way than other flowers? When I began to research tulips, I found some interesting folklore. Tulips first came to Europe from the Middle East. There is a Persian Romeo and Juliet type tale of thwarted love. The tale ends with a Princess taking her own life and drops of her blood turning into a tulip. In France, giving a woman a yellow tulip was one way to warn her of her husband’s infidelity. I also read that at one time a single tulip bulb cost more than the average European earned in a year. These flowers were both prized and treasured. Historians once called this period “Tulipomania!”
The old woman in the story is a caretaker. She worked in a garden growing, not vegetables to feed her family, but tulips for their beauty and her pleasure. The pixies and elves agreed, enchanting the flowers with fragrance, song and beauty. In one version of this tale, the wise crone crept out at night to watch a fairy mother singing and rocking her baby to sleep in a tulip cup. After that, she never allowed a single tulip to be picked.
We can see the difference for after her death, her heir pulled out the tulips to grow parsley instead. (Parsley? Really?) Perhaps parsley was a more practical use of the land, but it was an herb also associated with death in England. In Surrey and in other southern English counties it was said, “Where parsley’s grown in the garden, there’ll be a death before the year’s out.” The pixies cursed the land so that nothing ever grew on the plot again. The heir was lucky that the pixies didn’t curse him instead. Pixies and elves were notorious for causing mischief. Their favorite pastimes were leading travelers astray and frightening young maidens. Elves were thought to steal human children and substitute changelings. This would have been a fitting punishment to the heir that destroyed the pixie nursery.
The message of the story is clear. The wise crone does the unexpected. Her priority is beauty over practicality. She knows who the elves and pixies are and is not frightened by their difference. As a mother herself, she respects the pixie mothers by protecting their homes. In her death, she is honored by them when her own heir destroys her legacy. The pixies maintain her grave site with green sod and beautiful flowers. They dance and sing on her grave. No more lovely tribute could be given.
Both the crone and the pixies are characters outside the norm. In many ways they are the “other” in society, but even so, they are shown to be far more honorable than the crone’s heir. The crone doesn't worry about what other people think. She cultivates beauty and lives in harmony with others. In doing so, she is honored with the "queen of the night."