Interesting facts about Tulips

Tulips are flowering in SW France, and I have the privilege of working in gardens with varieties of both botanical and hybrid Tulips.  When my first client said she is very proud of her botanical tulip collection, I smiled and said, ‘yes, they’re beautiful.’ Inwardly, I wondered what the difference was between those and the brightly coloured normal tulip that you commonly see.

Here is what I learnt: In general, botanical tulips are tough, hardy, have shorter stems and smaller flowers, and their colours are delicate.  In one of my gardens we have pale pink, white and pale yellow, and white.  They flower earlier than hybrid varieties.  Botanicals also reproduce more prolifically than hybrids, so you plant them once and leave them to reproduce.  They are the ancestors of all the showy tulips available today.  Tulipa sylvestris existed in the wild purely with the intention of reproducing, little did they ever imagine that they would become the reason for Tulip Mania in the 1600s and be genetically tampered with to produce hundreds of different varieties.  In Holland it is possible to visit over 11,000 hectares of hybrid varieties: that’s an awful lot of tulips. 

But it was actually a French man, Charles de L’Ecluse, from Arras in the north of France, a Botanical Professor at Leiden University in 1593, who introduced tulips to Holland. He began studying and cultivating tulips, and through passing them to Holland, he laid the foundations of the Dutch tulip bulb industry. His observations on the phenomena of tulips “breaking” led to the speculative Tulip Mania of the 1630s. Inexplicably a tulip would go from producing blooms of a single colour to ‘breaking’ the flowers into beautiful feathery or flame-like patterns of many colours.

During the 19th Century, it was discovered that ‘breaking’ was actually the result of a virus, which of course was unknown information in the 17th Century. And so, in the 1630s, it was the diseased tulips, with their distinctive patterns, which became way more valuable than healthy ones.  Dutch botanists competed to breed ever more beautiful varieties and the most expensive (disease-ridden) bulb sold in 1637 for 6,700 guilders – which today would be equivalent to a house and garden on one of the smartest Amsterdam canals.  Madness.

But even more interesting than all of that (is that possible I hear you ask) is where the humble Tulip got its name.  There are two theories that I’ve read:

The first theory: Tulips are native to what is present-day Kazakhstan and its surrounding countries.  Back in the 16th century that area was influenced by the Ottoman Empire due to the Sultan of Turkey fighting for it and winning. Turkish travellers soon recognised the Tulip’s uniqueness and beauty, and transported it back to Turkey where it was planted in the gardens of the wealthy. It became extremely popular and was seen as a symbol of power and wealth and it was common for Ottoman Sultans to wear the tulip on their turbans. The Persian word for a turban is Tulipan, which, shortened to Tulipa gives us the Latin name for the Tulip.   

The second theory: A colleague of L’Ecluse was travelling in Turkey when he saw tulips growing wild.  Whilst pointing in the vague direction of the plant, he asked a turban-wearing farmer what it’s name was.  Thinking L’Ecluse was admiring his turban, the farmer replied ‘Tulipan’.  L’Ecluse documented the name of the plant as Tulipan – which was later shortened to Tulipa. 

I prefer the second theory, but then I’d always be on the side of the farmer!

Just in case you’d like to know another interesting fact about tulips, here’s one:  In 1940 when Germany invaded Holland the Dutch Royal Family fled to Canada, only returning to their homeland after Germany’s defeat in 1945.  Holland presented Canada with 100,000 tulip bulbs as a thank-you for having looked after them.  Every year since that Holland send 20,000 bulbs to Canada – 10,000 from the Royal Family and 10,000 from the Dutch Bulb Growers Association.  That again, is alot of Tulips.

So, I wish you a happy Spring, and enjoy the Tulips.

By Sarah Tyley