How the tulip became the world’s most coveted flower
As the main tulip season begins, it’s a timely reminder of the remarkable history of this beautiful bulb.
Our love affair with the tulip stretches across the centuries, from the exquisite palace gardens of Ottoman sultans to the frenzied ‘tulipomania’ which engulfed early 17th-century Holland. Admired by the Victorians and prized as a cut-flower, the tulip has rarely gone out of fashion.
Here we consider the tulip’s cultural influences through objects in our collections and explore the variety of tulips that have been grown in our gardens to inspire you this spring.
From East to West
Almost half of the 120 known tulip species are native to central Asia, where these wild flowers 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 and three centuries later tulips were being transported from the wild to the palace gardens of Ottoman sultans where they were highly prized flowers. It's likely that ambassadors and envoys from the West first encountered them here.
Tulips to inspire you
The Victorian copper vat in the Cottage Garden at Sissinghurst in Kent is filled with tulips each spring. Here a display of vibrant 'Orange Emperor' tulips makes a striking contrast with the verdigris of the container.
3,500 tulips form part of the annual spring planting in the newly restored Victorian Sunken Garden at Castle Ward, County Down. White tulips are used to set off the more vibrant coloured flowers.
Bright orange tulips 'Orange Lion' and 'Olympic Flame' light up the Victorian parterre at Erddig, near Wrexham. The planting scheme changes annually and tulips are trialled for their suitability in other areas of the garden.
This colour scheme of tulips, which flower underneath the Cherry Avenue at Emmetts in Kent as the trees come into blossom, dates back to 1910, creating a breathtaking, synchronised spring display.
Rows of tulips growing in the kitchen garden at Ham House, near Richmond, Surrey chosen for flower arrangements in the house. Varieties include: ‘Lasting Love’ ‘Ad Rem’ and ‘Blue Diamond’.
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 the following autumn in the orchard where they create an informal Persian carpet effect.
Beautiful books, known as a 'florilegia' (Latin for flower gathering), flourished from the end of the 16th century. This was thanks to the fine detail that could be achieved with copperplate engraving and a burgeoning interest in botany and horticulture, stimulated by the introduction of exotic plants, including the coveted tulip, from outside of Europe.
There’s no precise record of when the first tulip left Asia but the scarcity and beauty of this flower began to spark the desire for tulips in Europe, particularly in France and most famously in Holland.
In the early 17th century, artists from the Low Countries 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.
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.
Among this group of tulips, the Semper Augustus was the most coveted of all. Scarce, beautiful and therefore exclusive and expensive, the fine deep red flames against white petals had an intensity of colour and symmetry of form that set it apart from other tulips.
This painting by the Flemish artist Nicolas van Veerendael, at Nostell, West Yorkshire, dates from 1677 and features a prominently placed tulip bearing the hallmarks of a Semper Augustus flower.
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.
A Dutch School painting from the collection at Dudmaston, Shropshire dates from the height of tulipomania. The young girls wear exquisite clothing; the interior and its objects speak to a lifestyle of luxury and wealth of which tulips are a central component. One child holds three prized tulip flowers with flamed petals in her left hand, while tulips are planted in the parterre, seen through the window.
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 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 had 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.
Roses, bybloemens and bizarres
As gardening tastes changed in the 18th century and the rich turned to ‘Capability’ Brown’s natural-looking landscapes, tulip cultivation in Britain was adopted by a group of growers known as ‘florists’. Unlike the current meaning of the word, these were men who were dedicated to the cultivation of a particular flower for its decorative qualities.
Tulips were grown 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.
Around the middle of the 19th century such was the tulip’s popularity 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 and only the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society, founded in 1835, remains today.
Flower of many forms
Like daffodils and dahlias, tulips are divided into different divisions, chiefly defined by the characteristics of their flowers or when in spring they start to bloom. There are 15 in total and they include: Lily-flowered, Rembrandt, Viridifilora, Parrot and Darwin hybrid groups.
" I love the effect of Tulipa linifolia in grass as it evokes the common poppy in a country meadow, creating associations of summer to come."
The popularity of tulips has endured across the centuries and they remain a favourite spring flower to display in our homes and gardens. What were once rare blooms that only the wealthy could afford, are now enjoyed by everyone. Even flame-petaled tulips have been transformed into virus-free, affordable modern varieties.
Sadly our gardens and parks remain closed at this difficult time, but you can still delight in exploring the story and glory of tulips online, with us.