Tulips were introduced to Europe in the mid to late 1500s. The bold shapes and colours of tulips were unlike any other flowers available in Europe at the time. They quickly caught the attention of botanists, horticulturalists, and, often wealthy, appreciators of plants and beautiful things.
The forms first introduced to Europe would have been botanical species from Turkey and Eurasia that arrived in and around the late 16th century. They soon became de rigeur and a sign of status in households both rich and poor. Botanists and horticulturalists began to hybridize them creating more and more exciting forms. By late 1636 and early 1637 ‘Tulipmania’ was at its peak in Holland. The bulbs were so popular that the most desirable varieties could cost more than a house in Amsterdam at the time!
The tulip craze lead to a huge speculative market in tulips, one in which ordinary men clamoured to participate because of the vast amounts of money being made. They sold their businesses, family houses, farm animals, home furnishings and dowries in order to buy bulbs that they had never seen.
Eventually, supply increased and the price of tulips plummeted. The “Tulip Crash” sent many people into bankruptcy. Others lost all of their savings. All because of the tulip. The Dutch government then introduced special trading restrictions in order to avoid further fits of uncontrollable plant lust on the part of its population.
The chief stars/culprits of the Dutch Tulipmania of the 1600s and the focus of so much speculation and desire were the Broken Tulips. These rare forms possessed unique feathers, flares, striping and spots with every flower being different. Yet horticulturalists couldn’t figure out how to propagate and breed these varieties. The broken forms were difficult and perplexing but also highly desired. It was not discovered until the 1920s that these exquisite patterns were due to the presence of tulip breaking virus – a virus that is present today in all regions where tulips are grown – which caused the pigmentation on an otherwise solid-coloured tulip to break into the patterns so desired by collectors. In most cases this virus also caused a bulb to lose vigour over time and to eventually fizzle out.
However, in historic varieties that are still cultivated the virus seems to cause the colour breaking but is otherwise benign not causing any other ill effects on the bulb. The varieties of Broken Tulips that we usually offer – ‘Absalon’, ‘Black and White’, ‘Insulinde’, ‘Columbine’, ‘Mabel’, and ‘The Lizard’ – as far as we can tell from our research, all contain the tulip breaking virus. ‘Inner Wheel’ is a modern Rembrandt Tulip in the style of a Broken Tulip and does not contain the virus.
Information on growing Broken Tulips is hard to find and accounts are confusing as to whether or not these tulips pose a risk to other tulips or to lilies which can also be affected by the virus. Our bulbs are grown at the Hortus Bulborum in the Netherlands where more than 4000 different heirloom tulip and other bulbs are grown. If the tulip breaking virus in these varieties was dangerous one would think that they would not be grown in such close proximity with so many other rare cultivars within such a historic and important collection. Also, the growing of virused tulips is illegal in the Netherlands also suggesting that these varieties do not pose a risk.
The virus, should there be any risk, can only be transferred by sap to sap contact between bulbs either through tools or aphids. As long as you’re careful with maintaining clean tools and you make sure your Broken Tulips don’t get aphids, there should be no problems. You’ll have beautiful, unique and intriguing tulips in your garden for years to come.
Older tulip varieties tend to have more staying power than recent Dutch hybrids which only seem to remain strong for a few years before needing to be replaced. You should be able to maintain these Historic Tulips for many years to come in your garden but here are some important tips:
- Grow them in full sun in well-drained soil in the garden or in containers.
- Give them their space so they are not overrun by perennials or shaded by shrubs.
- Remove spent flowers after flowering to avoid energy being put into seed production.
- Fertilize after flowering with bulb food or slow release fertilizer sprinkled on the surface of the soil.
- Allow the foliage to remain as long as the leaves are green to achieve maximum time for photosynthesis and for restoring the energy in the bulb. Only once the leaves have turned yellow should they be removed.
- Allow bulbs to rest in the soil over summer undisturbed and with not too much soil moisture. A hot, baking period is fine and often desired by tulips. They will be biding their time underground until they emerge in spring to amaze and delight you once again.
At Phoenix Perennials, we offer a variety of Broken Tulips each year for pre-ordering through the summer and fall for pick-up or shipping in late September and early October. From July to October you can order at https://mailorder.phoenixperennials.com. Should supplies last, we may also have them available potted up in early spring. The following are the Broken Tulips we usually carry: