Tulips, Tulip-o-mania and Tulip Virus

tulips, emmetts garden, kent


Tulips have the ability to be ‘kitsch’, minimalist, cottagey, formal, statuesque and fun.


There was (is) a romantic song entitled ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’ which has the line “When its spring again, I’ll bring again, tulips from Amsterdam” and having seen the acres of tulips growing in Holland at the age of eleven, I understood why my mother thought they were a delightful addition to the spring flower garden.


Although there can be some overlap in flowering time between daffodils and tulips, I generally plant them up separately. A pot of deep purple tulips in between pots of bright yellow daffodils is deliciously bracing; and when the daffodils go over, replace their pots with ones filled with pale pink parrot tulips for a total change in mood.

Lily flowered tulips most closely resemble the species tulip in flower form and work well surrounded by other delicate planting if pale colours are chosen.

tulips lily flowered

Parrot tulips have curly, fringed petals and being available in a range of colours; personally I like to use them in funky or kitsch designs, but they do also suit a more restrained setting, in a border surrounded with the early foliage of herbaceous perennials, for example.

Greigii tulips are amongst the shortest varieties available so can look good at the front of the border. They tend to be brightly coloured with mottled green and purple/ black foliage; Tulip ‘Red Riding Hood’ for example.



Originally a native of Turkey, tulips were feted and fought over for a time in seventeenth century Holland. The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a wave of new pants introduced from Turkish Empire, including tulips, but also hyacinths, lilies and cyclamen.

Why the tulip in particular caused such frenzy has not yet been agreed upon. Possibly the flower’s ability to offer a wide range of flower colours within a single cultivar is one reason. Add in the growing economic power of urban merchants in a newly independent country with a need to show this off and reasons begin to suggest themselves.

white tulips

Tulip-o-mania, or tulpenmanie in Dutch, both made and lost fortunes. At its height of popularity in the mid 1630s, the tulip bulb had become the fourth largest export of the Netherlands after gin, herring and cheese. At one point, the price of a single bulb cost fifteen years’ worth of an Amsterdam bricklayer’s wages.

The tulip had become popular by the turn of the turn of the seventeenth century. John Tradescant the Elder, gardener to the Duke of Buckingham and Earl of Salisbury, brought back tulips from one of his plant collecting expeditions in 1611 specifically for the Earl to grow at Hatfield House.

Interestingly, despite its becoming a rich man’s flower-to-have, the tulip does not get a mention from Shakespeare.


Tulip virus and colourful petals

The virus that causes tulips to ‘break’ that is, causes the colour variation, was not known in the seventeenth century. However, the early tulip imports and their offspring were much prized for this trait. Once a tulip bulb has been infected, the offsets retain the colour variation of the parent and these tulips often commanded the highest prices.

The tulip virus was caused by an aphid, the peach potato aphid (Myzus persicae) being one of the most effective. This aphid thrives in warm conditions among fruit trees and was prevalent in the peach orchards of the Turkish Empire. In Europe too, fruit trees were a popular feature of the formal gardens into which the tulips were imported, so it is no surprise that the virus remained to ‘break’ the tulips into new forms and colours.

'broken' tulips, tulip virus

Even after the end of the manic period of tulip popularity in Western Europe, tulips remained fashionable. Indeed, many bulbs were still very expensive, remaining out of the reach of the ‘ordinary’ person until the nineteenth century.

The Ottoman Empire continued the craze for tulips, with the early eighteenth century Lale devri being particularly notable. These Turkish tulips had dagger shaped petals, more like the native species and lily flowered tulips we know today. Ottoman art flowered during this period (pun intended!) and tulips appeared in illustrations and poetry.

tulips, purple, white, fringed petals

The tulip is still considered the epitome of beauty in Turkey, and it certainly adds an elegant touch or a fun side to our spring gardens.


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purple iris and orange tulip - RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2010

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Chartered Institute of Horticulture