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.

A polychrome plate from Iznik, Turkey, decorated with carnations, tulips and a ‘saz’ leaf design, circa 1590, in the collection at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire. Slender, sharp-petalled tulips appear across Ottoman decorative arts of the period
A polychrome plate from Iznik, Turkey, decorated with carnations, tulips and a ‘saz’ leaf design, circa 1590, in the collection at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire. Slender, sharp-petalled tulips appear across Ottoman decorative arts of the period
A polychrome plate from Iznik, Turkey, decorated with carnations, tulips and a ‘saz’ leaf design, circa 1590, in the collection at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire. Slender, sharp-petalled tulips appear across Ottoman decorative arts of the period

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 book Hortus Floridus, or ‘Flower Garden’ (1614) featured the most sought after tulips of the age. The artist, Crispijn de Passe, was 17 when he began the illustrations. From Anglesey Abbey's collection, Cambridgeshire
Hortus Floridus, or ‘Flower Garden’ (1614) featured the most sought after tulips of the age. The artist, Crispijn de Passe, was just 17 when he began the illustrations. From the collection at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire
The book Hortus Floridus, or ‘Flower Garden’ (1614) featured the most sought after tulips of the age. The artist, Crispijn de Passe, was 17 when he began the illustrations. From Anglesey Abbey's collection, Cambridgeshire

Renaissance flowering

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.

Petal perfection

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.  

 

Two Unknown Girls, Dutch (Frisian) School, early 17th century in the collection at Dudmaston, Shropshire
Two Unknown Girls, Dutch (Frisian) School, early 17th century in the collection at Dudmaston, Shropshire
Two Unknown Girls, Dutch (Frisian) School, early 17th century in the collection at Dudmaston, Shropshire

'Tulipomania'

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.

Tulips are grown in pots at Westbury Court Garden in Gloucestershire, including 'Olympic Flame', a modern variety with the flamed petals coveted in historic tulips
Tulips are grown in pots at Westbury Court Garden in Gloucestershire, including 'Olympic Flame', a modern variety with the flamed petals coveted in historic tulips
Tulips are grown in pots at Westbury Court Garden in Gloucestershire, including 'Olympic Flame', a modern variety with the flamed petals coveted in historic tulips

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.

The mid-season Triumph tulip 'Prinz Armin' beginning to bloom in the garden at Erddig, near Wrexham
The mid-season Triumph tulip 'Prinz Armin' beginning to bloom in the garden at Erddig, near Wrexham
The mid-season Triumph tulip 'Prinz Armin' beginning to bloom in the garden at Erddig, near Wrexham

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.

Tulip groups

Tulips are found across the garden at Standen, West Sussex in spring. Seen here is the Viridiflora group tulip 'Yellow Spring Green'

Viridiflora group

Dating back to the 1700s, the 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. 'Yellow Spring Green' is a popular variety, seen here in the garden at Standen in West Sussex.

A pot of showy, parrot group tulips, 'Texas Flame' begin to flower above the parterre at Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire

Parrot group

The first parrot tulips appeared in 17th-century France and are named after their colourful and feather-like, ruffled petals. These are the flamboyant stars of the tulip world, larger and more decorative than other tulips. A pot of 'Texas Flame' flowers above the parterre at Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire.

The tall, elegant, pure white Darwin hybrid tulip 'Hakuun' flowering at Dyffryn in the Vale of Glamorgan

Darwin hybrid group

The Dutch nurseryman E. H. Krelage bought one of the last great florist’s tulip collections, selected the best varieties and named them after Charles Darwin. In the 1950s another Dutch breeder crossed these with Tulipa fosteriana, a wild tulip from central Asia. The sturdy, egg-shaped blooms include the pure white 'Hakuun', flowering here at Dyffryn in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The spectacular display of 500,000 spring bulbs in the formal plats at Ham House in London, feature four species tulips: turkestanica, tarda, bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’ and linifolia mingled with Muscari latifolium
The spectacular display of 500,000 flowering spring bulbs in the formal plats at Ham House in London, feature four species tulips among Muscari latifolium
The spectacular display of 500,000 spring bulbs in the formal plats at Ham House in London, feature four species tulips: turkestanica, tarda, bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’ and linifolia mingled with Muscari latifolium
" 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."
- Rosie Fyles, Head Gardener, Ham House and Garden
Tulips have been used in flower arrangements for centuries. Here at Monk's House in East Sussex, 'Queen of the Night' tulips contrast with bluebells, lilac and other spring flowers and foliage
Tulips have been used in flower arrangements for centuries. Here at Monk's House in East Sussex 'Queen of the Night' tulips contrast with bluebells, lilac and other spring flowers and foliage
Tulips have been used in flower arrangements for centuries. Here at Monk's House in East Sussex, 'Queen of the Night' tulips contrast with bluebells, lilac and other spring flowers and foliage

Floral favourite

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.