As a transplant from Holland it is all too easy to identify with the ubiquitous Tulips in Spring as they are such a common symbol of the old country. But even at the risk of being cliche, this beautiful cut flower is worth knowing about because it comes with its own interesting history.
Originally from Turkey, the bulb was first introduced in the Netherlands in the second half of the 16th century and in America the Tulips appeared around the middle of the 19th century. Although Tulips showing up in a few European gardens as early as 1558, it is nevertheless Carolus Clusius who primarily is credited for bringing the Tulip to western Europe and he planted Tulips at the Vienna Imperial Botanical Gardens in 1573. After being appointed director of the newly established Hortus Botanicus at the Leiden University in Holland, Carolus planted some of his Tulip bulbs there in the fall of 1593. These Tulips at Hortus Botanicus in Leiden eventually led to one of the most famous speculative market bubbles of all times; the Tulip Mania.
The story goes that, not surprisingly people started to steal these tantalizingly beautiful exotic species from Carolus’ gardens and planted them in their own gardens. But more to the point, they started trading the bulbs for other goods. These beautiful Tulips were very well suited to the Dutch climate, surviving the cold winter months and appearing as a burst of color in a still very bare Dutch landscape first thing in Spring, so it was no wonder they caught on quickly. But the intensity of the Tulip mania, it’s duration and the exuberant amounts paid by some speculators was primarily due to the fact that some bulbs were exquisitely different. These bulbs produced flowers with such multicolor effects of intricate lines and flame-like streaks, they were so sought after that breeders did everything they could think of, to produce more of these rare and incredibly interestingl Viceroy Tulip and Semper Augusta. It is hard to fathom the fact that some of these rare bulbs traded at its peak for almost 10.000 guilders a piece. Approx. six times an average person’s annual salary. One such transaction reportedly stated: “After a long period of hard bargaining, an individual paid out thirty-six bushels of wheat, seventy-two of rice, four oxen, twelve sheep, eight pigs, two barrels of wine, four barrels of beer, two tons of butter, a thousands pounds of cheese, a bed, a suit of clothes, and a silver cup” for just one bulb. Although it is now known that this feathering effect is due to the bulb being infected with TBV the “Tulip breaking virus”, (so called because it “breaks” the one petal color into two or more), breeders at that time believed that it was environmental conditions that caused these effects. To increase the supply of these rare bulbs they tried to induce “rectification” ( it was believed that with the offset production of an entirely new “broken” bloom the plant was rectifying, itself into a purer life form) through various different breeding techniques such as: frequent soil changes, which causing the bulb to go to seed; varying the planting depths so the plant had to struggle in too much or too little soil; applying too much or too little manure; using soil that was either too poor or too rich; or storing the bulbs in exposed conditions so that they would be ‘acted’ upon by the rain, wind, sun, and extremes of temperature. In the end it was the Tulip itself that turned out to be a conspirator in the supply-squeeze that fueled the Tulip speculation. Although it takes 7–12 years to grow a flowering bulb from seed, Tulips can produce hundreds of seeds every year, however only two or three clones or offsets are produced each year. The “mother bulb” lasts only a few years and the “daughter offsets” will become flowering bulbs after one to three years. Since the sought-after “breaking pattern” can only be reproduced through offsets bulbs, not seeds. Plus the fact that the same virus that produced the sought-after effects also acted adversely on the bulb and therefore weakening it and retarding propagation, cultivating these most appealing varieties, remained an interesting but mysterious and slow-moving enterprise. Taking this into account, quite probably from the time the speculation started until its collapse, the number of rare bulbs that changed hands so feverishly possibly never increased beyond the original number.
Eventually in Feb 1637 the end of the Tulip Mania came even more abruptly than when it all began just over 40 years ago. A handful of buyers did not show up at regular bulb auctions in Haarlem, (a city just west of Amsterdam), quite possibly because it was at the height of the bubonic plaque. People for the first time were not able to sell to the high bidders and soon found themselves stuck with bulbs they could no longer find new buyers willing to pay increasingly inflated prices. As this realization set in, the demand for Tulips collapsed, and prices plummeted and the bubble burst. Some were left holding contracts to purchase tulips at prices now ten times greater than those on the open market, while others found themselves in possession of bulbs now worth a fraction of the price they had paid.
It is interesting to note that growers were able to produce new broken varieties through bulb grafting as early as 1637, by combining “broken” bulbs infected with the virus with healthy bulbs that produced uniformly colored flowers. But it was not until 1928 when it was discovered that the delicately feathery patterns were caused by a communicable plant disease. Dorothy Cayley started a series of experiments that led to the discovery of the ‘Tulip Breaking Virus’. Working at the John Innes Horticultural Institution, She discovered that by transferring infected tissue from broken bulbs to healthy bulbs during their dormant state, the infective agent that caused the break in color would also be transferred. These experiments were further refined to include the tiny amounts that could be transferred by an insect which became her final deduction. The disease was eventually proven to be transferred by the aphid species in the 1960’s and proven to be a virus. Today the virus is almost eradicated from Tulip growers’ fields. The multicolored patterns or modern varieties result from breeding; they normally have solid, not feathered borders between the colors.
These days one can buy bulbs for “an apple and an egg” as the Dutch say (cheap), instead of an arm and a leg but it is nevertheless never a bad idea to find a ways to pinch a few dollars from your Tulip budget, (only to buy more plants of course) so here is a little info for those of you who like their Tulips to come back, year after year. Happy Spring Folks, it has officially arrived.
How to get Tulips to bloom forever.
Well, almost. Though they have a reputation for being short-lived, we know of Tulips that have been blooming beautifully for decades. Here’s how to get the most out of yours. For a start, you need to be in zone 7 or colder. (Gardeners in warmer zones can grow Tulips as annuals, but you’ll need to chill them in the refrigerator for 8 weeks before planting.) Then most important, we’ve learned from experience, is keeping them DRY in SUMMER (as in their native homes). Try this: plant a few where you never water in summer — or near a thirsty shrub or tree — and see how well they return. Beyond that, the basics include well-drained soil (improve heavy soil, or try raised beds), lots of sun, regular fertilizing, and — this is very important — letting the foliage ripen to yellow to feed the bulbs for next year’s bloom. Some authorities recommend deep planting, especially in the South — to 12 inches — but we say 6-8 inches is plenty. Then there’s this age-old method: dig them up every summer, store them in a cool dry spot, and replant them in the fall. You’ll end up with more bulbs every year, guaranteed. Some varieties just last better, too — often Single Earlies, Single Lates, Lily-flowered Tulips. And there’s a good reason why OLD VARIETIES OFTEN PERENNIALIZE BETTER: they were bred for gardens, not for commercial pot-flower and cut-flower uses as most modern Tulips have been. Tulips do best when planted in mid- to late fall, after the soil has thoroughly cooled. Later is better than earlier with Tulips. If necessary, store in open bags in a cool, dry spot (or the refrigerator — NOT the freezer). Neutral to slightly alkaline soil is ideal, though Tulips are very adaptable. Set bulbs about 6 inches apart from center to center (or closer for a lush look). For each, scratch a tablespoon of bulb fertilizer into the surface soil (slow-release 10-10-10 is ideal). Use no manure. Water well and make sure the bulbs have reliable moisture throughout their growing period, from planting in the fall through the ripening of their foliage the following summer.