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Updated: Nov 13, 2018

Tulip's Glamorous Past

Tulips have been the best loved and most widely grown bulb since they first spread from Turkey through Europe more than four centuries ago. Along with orchids and roses, they have been the subjects of the most intensive hybridizing efforts in the world of flowers. Today there are more than 4000 named varieties of tulips grouped into 15 different classes.

Most of the modern tulips are descended from the oldest tulips in cultivation, the so-called lily-flowered type that has pointed petals. It was so admired by the Turks that it was one of the most popular decorative motifs during the 500 years of the Ottoman dynasty.

The early Dutch growers cultivated these bulbs developing tulips with rounded rather than pointed petals. They developed double tulips with more than the normal six petals and also multicolored types that set off Holland 's ruinous tulip craze. When these new European hybrids found their way back to Turkey , they in turn started frenzy so intense that the period from 1718 to 1730 is known as the “tulip epoch” of Turkish history. Everyone was taken with the “Rembrandts though no one knew at the time that most of the prized streaks and frills in these flowers were caused by a virus. Professional Turkish gardeners dusted bulbs with “fertilizing powder”, made by crushing infected bulbs, thus passing on the disease.

Tulips soon became an important part of a gentleman's garden everywhere. In America , Washington and Jefferson were tulip fanciers. As the Industrial Revolution swept families from country cottages to factory towns, the people took their tulips with them to cheer their dreary urban homes. These cottage tulips became popular among more affluent gardeners around 1880. During the next decades the development of Darwins and Darwin hybrids, today's favorites, gave tulip growing a new impetus that continues today.

Bulbs by James U. Crockett

History of Tulips

One of the most bizarre goings-on during the course of the history of bulbs was the “tulip mania,” a wave of speculation in which tulips were traded for profit in the manner of stocks, commodity futures, or real estate. Tulip mania engulfed Western Europe early in the 17th Century.

In those days tulips were still novelties in Europe . Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I sent a Fleming named Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq to Constantinople in 1554 to talk peace with the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent who had invaded Hungary . On his way to Constantinople , de Busbecq saw “an abundance of flowers everywhere – narcissus, hyacinths, and those the Turks called tulipam – much to our astonishment because it was almost midwinter, a season unfriendly to flowers.” The Turks called the tulip “ lalé” , but de Busbecq's interpreter probably said the flower looked like a turban ( tulipam ). This was shortened to “tulip”.

De Busbecq bought some bulbs about which he commented -–“cost me not a little.” Their fame and seed spread in Holland where they caused great excitement and interest.

In 1593 the French botanist Carolus Clusius left his post as imperial gardener in Vienna taking with him his a stock of tulip bulbs. He planted them in his garden in Leiden . Clusius, overwhelmed by the sudden demand for his specimens, decided to charge such exorbitant prices that no one could afford them. One dark night somebody stole into his garden and made off with most of his best flowers, bulbs and all. Whoever did this wasted no time propagating them.

Thus began the Dutch bulb business.

Bulbs by James U. Crockett

Bulbs Worth Fortunes

During the 17 th Century, Dutchmen, Frenchmen, and Englishmen coveted the unusual tulips. Tulip connoisseurs began to bid against each other, thus raising prices. By 1624, a bulb named Semper Augustus (red and white with a blue tint at its base) sold for the equivalent of $1200. The next year, $3000 was offered for two bulbs and at the top of the market three bulbs sold for $30,000.

As the mania for tulips grew, every backyard in Holland was ablaze with these flowers. The real madness began when growing gave way to speculation. Starting in 1634 the rich and poor vied to buy bulbs of likely strains even though they had not yet bloomed. Traders would buy and sell without ever having held any bulbs in their hands, or even having seen them. Tulip futures ran wild.

Eventually the real bulbs and not paper contracts had to be delivered. So long as florists or growers were willing to pay higher sums for unusual bulbs, the traders earned profits. Prices rarely went down and everyone was getting rich.

After three years of boom, in the spring of 1637, the market collapsed. Many suspicious traders began to dump large numbers of bulbs on the exchange, which resulted in plummeting prices. Suddenly everyone wished to sell and nobody wanted to buy!

Men who had become rich overnight became poor again. It is no wonder that the whole business created some confirmed tulip-haters. A professor of botany at Leiden , one Evrard Forstius, used to beat tulips to death with his walking stick whenever he encountered them.

Bulbs by James U. Crockett

Tulip Varieties

Tulips produce their own varieties because cultivated varieties “ break ” (they unpredictably develop extraordinarily beautiful new colors and patterns). Why tulips “ break ” seemed to be a mystery, but modern scientists determined that the changes are caused by not only natural mutation but by a virus that spreads from bulb to bulb.

Tulips can provide abundant flowers in a wide spectrum of colors from March though May. Many varieties can be enjoyed as houseplants in midwinter. The dwarf varieties are excellent in rock gardens; tall growing one are indispensable in borders. Most tulips make excellent cut flowers.

Garden tulips are classed not only by their ancestry and flowering characteristics, but also by their bloom time. Tulip Flowers usually have cups 2 or 3 inches deep, but some have been developed to bear unusually large flowers of more than 4 inches deep. Other have cups as small as one inch deep.

Bulbs by James U. Crockett

How to Grow

Large-flowered garden tulips do best in Zones 3 -7, where they can be left in the ground year round. Plant bulbs in early fall working in 5 – 6 pounds of bone meal per 100 square feet. When shoots appear in spring, scratch in a dusting of a 5-10-5 fertilizer. Since tulip bulbs multiply and in the process produce smaller flowers in each successive year, many gardeners discard the bulbs after the flower fades. In this situation, the bulbs are planted 4-6 inches apart and covered with 5-6 inches of soil.

When planted more deeply, however, they tend to multiply to a lesser extent and produce beautiful flowers for up to 8 years. Using this method, till soil to a depth of 15 to 18 inches, spacing bulbs 4-6 inches apart and cover with 10 inches of soil. You can hide maturing foliage after the flower fades by planting annuals above deep-set bulbs.

Large-flowering tulips can be grown successfully in Zones 8-10 if bulbs are refrigerated for about 8 weeks at 40º - 45º from late November or December. Plant beneath 6-8 inches of soil to keep bulbs as cool as possible. Bulbs do not multiply well in the summer heat, so dig up and discard after the flower fades. All tulips planted outdoors do best if in full sun but will bloom well if they receive 5-6 hours of direct sunlight each day. Propagate tulips in midsummer (after the leaves wither) from the small bulbs that develop beside the large ones. Water is spring rains are less than 1 inch per week.

Bulbs by James U. Crockett Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening

Choosing Terrific Tulips

It's easy to get lost and confused among the hundreds of beautiful tulips offered for sale. First, decide whether you want bloom throughout the season or just a big show for a few weeks in mid to late spring. The following is a list of some popular tulip types listed by bloom season.

Early-Blooming Tulips Single early: 2” -4” flowers; 12”-14” stems; often fragrant. Double early: 3”-4” many-petaled flowers; 12”-14” stems. Greigii: 3” long flowers; 6” – 12” stems; purple-striped foliage. Kaufmanniana: 3” long flowers; 4” –8” tall; called waterlily tulips because of the flower shape;foliage sometimes mottled. Fostoriana: 4” long flowers; 1' stems; includes ‘Emperor' strain tulips.

Mid-Season Tulips Darwin hybrid: 3” – 4” flowers; 3' stems. Triumph: 2” – 4” flowers; 15” – 18” stems.

Late-Season Tulips Lily-flowered: 2” – 4” flowers with curved, spreading petals; 20” stems. Single late: 3” –4” long, egg-shaped flowers; 1 ½' – 2' stems. Parrot: 6” wide feather-edged flowers, often with contrasting colors; 20” stems. Double late: 6” wide, peony-like flowers; 20” stems; the last to bloom.

Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening


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