Tulips come in many shapes and colours, and to me, they represent one of the main flowers of Spring. Once the tulips are open, delighting us with their brief burst of coloured glory, the plants in the garden really seem to pick up the pace. The origins of the modern tulip are obscure, but seem to lie inside the Ottoman Empire. Certainly, the cultivating of tulips rapidly spread throughout Europe, as gardeners found this hardy perennial (certainly the bulbs are frost-resistant) of the family Liliaceae easy to cultivate and most attractive.
The tulip is a forb, that is, a non-woody plant that is not a grass! There are many different cultivars and strains of tulip, but the modern, commercially grown flowers can all be said to descend from Tulip gesneriana, sometimes known as ‘Didier’s Tulip’. The fantastic streaks and markings seen on flowers, are due in modern strains to careful breeding and genetic selection, but in the 16th and 17th centuries these markings were caused by a type of mosaic virus, the Tulip Breaking Virus, whose vector was the Green Peach Aphid (Myzus persicae). This aphid caused extreme damage to various commercial crops, not just peaches, as it carries many other viruses, including the Potato Leaf Roll Virus.
Tulips were the root cause of one of the most unusual economic ‘bubbles’ in history. They were widely grown in the Netherlands, and by early 17th century had assumed a major economic role. Speculation and trading grew apace, until in the period 1634 -1637 the so-called ‘Tulip Mania’ took hold. At its height a single bulb of one of the virally-damaged, exotic coloured bulbs sold for more than the equivalent of three years wages of a skilled worker! Needless to say, there was a huge market crash, and merchants were left holding now-worthless stocks of bulbs. This was the first recorded example of a speculative, economic bubble. Set in Holland some years after the ‘Tulip Mania’, the 1937 film ‘The Black Tulip’ (based on a novel by Alexandre Dumas, père, the French author of ‘The Three Musketeers’) gives an excellent view of the obsession with the search for a truly black tulip. Modern gardeners are actually coming close to this ideal; the variety ‘Queen of the Night’ is actually a very deep purple, but it is certainly close. Today, tulip festivals are held in many places in Europe; in Holland, of course, but also in Spalding in Lincolnshire, where thousands of acres are devoted to the growing of bulbs of many kinds. The Spalding Flower Parade features spectacular floats decorated with tens of thousands of tulips, and is held in April each year.
These striking red tulips are in my brother Michael’s garden in Wales, and they remind me of our childhood in Derbyshire!