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The history of tulips

Tulips at Standen, West Sussex
Tulips at Standen, West Sussex | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Uncover the remarkable history of our love affair with this popular bulb. From the exquisite palace gardens of Ottoman sultans to the frenzied ‘tulipomania’ in 17th-century Holland, the tulip has rarely gone out of fashion. Find out about the flower’s cultural influences and explore the variety of tulips that might inspire you to grow some in your own garden.

Where tulips originated

Almost half of the 120 known tulip species are native to central Asia, where they thrive in the extremes of baking hot summers and harsh, cold winters. The small, often bright red blooms were a potent emblem for nomadic people and a welcome sign of spring.

By the 11th century, Persian poets were celebrating the beauty of the tulip. Three centuries later, tulips were being transported from the wild to the palace gardens of Ottoman sultans, where they were highly prized. It's likely that ambassadors and envoys from western Europe first encountered them here.

There’s no precise record of when the first tulip left Asia but the scarcity and beauty of this flower led to a huge desire for tulips in Europe in the 17th century, particularly in France and most famously in Holland.


A large part of the fascination with tulips was down to the way they sometimes magically transformed from a single-coloured flower one season to being exquisitely flamed with contrasting colours the next.

In the early 17th century, artists from the Low Countries (The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg) were among the first to produce paintings that exclusively depicted flowers. These sumptuous images provide a visual record of the most desirable tulips of the period.

Demand for the most beautiful and rarely seen varieties of tulips in Holland led to a craze known as ‘tulipomania’. Coinciding with the Dutch Golden Age, this craze saw the wealthy in Europe's richest country wanting to fill their fashionable gardens with coveted flamed tulips.

Painting entitled Two girls holding hands, Dutch (Frisian) School from the collection at Dudmaston, Shropshire
Painting entitled Two girls holding hands, from the collection at Dudmaston | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Boom and bust

Tulipomania reached a climax in Holland in January 1637 when the most sought-after tulips were commanding thousands of guilders per bulb and the price for a single ‘Semper Augustus’ – the most prized of all – reached 10,000 guilders. This was enough to buy a magnificent house and trappings in the most desirable district of Amsterdam.

The gamble of acquiring a bulb, in anticipation of it flowering with the desired ‘break’ in colour, added to its allure. Unfortunately, the breaking was caused by a virus, not discovered until the 1930s, which also weakened and eventually killed the bulbs, making them an even riskier purchase.

Prices escalated to unsustainable levels and tulipomania collapsed in a matter of months. Suddenly bulbs were fetching a tiny fraction of their old value and many people were left in financial ruin.

The rise of the florist

As gardening tastes changed towards natural-looking landscapes in the 18th century, tulip cultivation in Britain was adopted by growers known as ‘florists’. Unlike the current meaning of the word, these florists cultivated a particular flower for its decorative qualities.

They grew tulips from seed, taking up to seven years to produce a flowering bulb. These English tulips were classed by their colours: bybloemens (shades of purple and violet on white), bizarres (mahogany, scarlet or brown on yellow) and roses (various shades of red on cream). A tulip known as a ‘breeder’ was one of a uniform colour, yet to break into the sought-after flame and feather patterns.

Tulip groups

Like daffodils and dahlias, tulips are divided into different divisions, chiefly defined by the characteristics of their flowers or when they start to bloom. There are 15 in total and they include lily-flowered, Rembrandt, viridiflora, parrot and Darwin hybrid groups.

Examples of tulip divisions

Tulip variety 'Spring Green' at the Courts Garden, Wiltshire
Tulip variety 'Spring Green' at the Courts Garden, Wiltshire | © National Trust Images/Carole Drake

Viridiflora group

Dating to the 1700s, this group’s name is a combination of the Latin words for green and flower and refers to the fact that all tulips in this group have a green streak or stripe in the centre of each petal. They flower late in the season.

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Floral favourite

Around the middle of the 19th century tulips were so popular that many towns had a specialist society for growing and showing the flowers. The National Tulip Society was formed in 1849 but by the early 20th century these societies were in decline. Only the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society, founded in 1835, survives today.

Yet the popularity of tulips has endured across the centuries, and they remain a favourite spring flower to display in homes and gardens. Even flame-petaled tulips have been transformed into virus-free, affordable varieties. What was once a rare bloom that only the wealthy could afford are now enjoyed by everyone.

Tulips at National Trust places

Tulips in the west garden at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire
Tulips in the west garden at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire | © National Trust Images/Laura Williams

Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire

Tulips have been grown at Dyrham Park near Bath since the late 17th century. Bulbs that have flowered in other areas of the garden are lifted and replanted in the orchard the following autumn to create an informal 'Persian carpet' effect.

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