The rebellious stream of colour in Bowral's Corbett Gardens stares up at us in a burst of defiance.
Hasn't someone told the tulips that they're early?
If all had gone to plan, the buds would just be beginning to bloom now - but Mother Nature had other ideas.
Unseasonably warm weather followed by rain showers and wind has confused the tulips and they began to unfurl in all their glory two weeks ago, adding to the stress of Tulip Time's head gardener, Rod McTernan.
Tulip Time is now the single most important tourist attraction in the Southern Highlands, and the local economy and several charities thrive on the injection of tourist dollars to the area.
So making sure the tulips are perfect for the entire two-week celebration of spring is a big ask for the head gardener who has been given the responsibility of Tulip Time for the third year running.
"Sure, there's stress involved," McTernan says. "Anything that you're passionate about always comes with an element of concern and worry. You're always thinking up ways to protect them."
Surprisingly there are no back-up plans if things go awry. No tulips in pots sitting in a covered, protected warehouse nearby that can be trucked into Bowral at the last minute. There's not even an extra, potted tulip to fill in a stubborn, black hole.
McTernan relies on his green thumb - or should that be rainbow thumb - to ensure the garden looks spectacular each year from September 24 to October 7.
McTernan tries to stagger the blooming of the tulips by planting varieties that are early, mid and late blooming. If all goes to plan, there should be enough colour in the garden to last the two weeks - although the early onset of blossoms had him and his small team of gardeners in a spin.
"Tulips are a cold climate plant and so the warmer weather heading up into the mid-20s has them flowering a few weeks earlier this year," McTernan says. "You can't control what they do after they are hit with weather like that."
This year he experimented with a few varieties in pots spacing the bulbs out six weeks apart to see if he could manipulate the blooming - but no luck.
"They all flowered at the same time," he says. "The foliage is shorter in the last ones I planted but basically they all want to flower together regardless of what you do. It proves there's not much that can be done to stop nature."
Early or late, their blooming heralds the season of renewal and growth, and the explosion of spring colour is breathtaking.
From a distance the tulips look similar in shape, but a closer inspection reveals intricate differences giving each variety a distinct, secret personality. Some petals have a leathery quality, while others are fine and feathery - like a ballerina's tutu. With names like Sky High Scarlet, Verandi, Barcelona and Carnival de Nice, it adds to the exotic nature of the festival which is now in its 53rd year.
At the centre of the garden is a sandstone carved tulip adding texture to the garden - a fitting tribute to a magnificent burst of colour.
The garden's creativity is supported by a huge palette of plants - the vibrant blood reds and deep purples seem to yell out at you, while the softer hues add a gentler, relaxing vibe to the garden.
For McTernan, it's the majestic Negrita - a tall, purple variety that holds his attention.
"The Negrita would have to be my favourite," he says. "But I like them all."
The bulbs are planted in April after Anzac Day and take a team of 13 gardeners 2½ days to put into the ground - with 90,000 bulbs planted in Corbett Gardens alone. A further 35,000 bulbs are planted in the surrounding villages - extending Tulip Time across the Southern Highlands. Every single plant is dug individually by hand and McTernan says he can guarantee there are no pots hidden under the fertile soil.
Keeping the bulbs safe since the end of April has not been an easy task for McTernan and his team.
This year a security fence around Corbett Gardens stopped schoolchildren vandalising them in their lunch hour - but nothing could stop the pesky rabbits from creating havoc.
"The rabbits come out at night and dig up the bulbs, they don't eat them, they just like to dig them up for fun," says McTernan. "So each morning we have to find all the spots where they've been busy and put the bulbs back in the ground again."
The weather plays a big part in the success or failure of the festival. Rain not only affects the tulips - it frightens away visitors. Some years the festival won't even cover costs - depending on the numbers of tourists through the garden.
It costs Wingecarribee Council $250,000 to buy the bulbs, care for them and promote and market the event.
Last year organisers got lucky with 12 sunny days out of the 14. The festival not only managed to cover costs, but made a $30,000 profit. The surplus has been put away for when the heavens are not as kind - a rainy-day slush fund.
Destination Southern Highlands group manager Steve Rosa has been in charge of marketing Tulip Time for nine years and says the aim is to create a festival that is sustainable and not a burden on ratepayers.
The tulips are bought from two wholesalers in Victoria and Tasmania and arrive in April cleaned, numbered and refrigerated - with every bulb guaranteed to flower.
There are 16 rare tulips, not yet commercially available to the public, which have been planted in wine barrels.
McTernan says: "We've been given a hundred bulbs of each variety and so the general public can enjoy these new tulips for the first time."
The Country Women's Association has been supporting the event from its 88-year-old cottage in the garden. Its members, many in their 70s have spent all year preparing for Tulip Time, knitting and sewing, making jams and pickles and baking a mountain of scones.
In the cottage, blue and white checked table cloths greet visitors in need of a cup of tea and friendly chat.
Bowral CWA president Helen Kent, a former nursing sister, says it's a lot of camaraderie and hard work.
"This is our major fund-raiser for the year," she says. "People come back here year after year to say hello and try our freshly made scones and jam. We make a lot of friends. It's lovely."
The first Tulip Time began with the planting of 15,000 tulips in Corbett Gardens and it was advertised as a "tulip walk". It coincided with a week-long festival which included a street parade, lots of music and theatre, a mayoral ball and a festival queen.
The Bowral-Mittagong Rotary Club turned the festival into a floral event a few years later and has remained an active partner in the event. President Rosemary Kelly, the branch's first woman president, says members are proud to be involved.
"We have people rostered on for the entire two weeks," says Kelly. "We help man the gates and run a sausage sizzle. It's something we do every year. A lot of older people like to come and visit the gardens because it's a lot smaller than Floriade in Canberra, they can get around the grounds easier. It's become quite popular."
Last year Tulip Time attracted 65,000 visitors to the Southern Highlands and a record 35,000 visitors to Corbett Gardens.
It's the biggest economic drive from a tourism perspective and generates almost $7 million for the region.
Rosa says: "It's the flagship event for the whole of the South Coast and Southern Highlands.
"It's the biggest event south of Sydney and outside of Canberra's Floriade."
He says Tulip Time should not be compared with Floriade, which has government backing.
"But Tulip Time is a community event and we shouldn't be compared with Floriade which is massive."
Tulip Time's charity partners this year are CanTeen and the Kollege of Knowledge Kommittee for Kids. Both are youth-based organisations.
"This year we have a Brighter Future theme focusing on young people," says Rosa.
"It's all about fun and being young at heart."
The highlight of the festival will be marked with a family day today followed by a street parade starting at 3pm with more than 40 floats.
There are also fringe events throughout the Southern Highlands, including fashion parades and 20 private gardens will be open to the public during the two-week festival.