I can’t think of a better time than now to talk about tulips! As everyone is out picking out their bulbs for spring, please take a look at this great article that our guest blogger Chris has written up all about this historical flower!
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Broken Tulips: The Beautiful Curse
Bold. Flared. Striking.
Broken Tulips are like nothing else in the Tulip world…like nothing else in the flower world. Their distinct streaks immediately attract the eye and don’t let go.
At the height of Tulip Mania, it was the ‘broken’ flowers that had speculators running wild. Viceroy, Admiraal Van Der Eijk, the legendary Semper Augustus – they all had the distinct, broken pattern.
But today, these once-legendary flowers no longer exist. And Broken Tulips in general have fallen out of favor with growers and breeders. What happened? With their striking looks, wouldn’t the industry want to share these flowers with the masses? Wouldn’t they want to be able to offer a piece of the Tulip Mania history?
Unfortunately, the source of this beauty is also a curse. While Tulip Fanatics had long noticed that broken Tulips often seemed smaller and a bit weaker, it was not until 1928 that scientist Dorothy Cayley discovered the cause to be a Virus.
Spread by aphids, this virus infects the Tulip bulb and causes the flower to ‘break’ its lock on a single color. This results in the intricate flaring, feathering streaks on the petals. The color variegation is a result of of the laid-on color of the Tulip (its anthocyanin) being suppressed, leaving the underlying white or yellow to show through.
Exact symptoms can vary depending on the Tulip, the strain of the virus, and even elements such as time of infection. However, once a bulb is infected, all of its daughter offshoots will be as well.
Over time, the virus weakens the bulb and inhibits proper offset reproduction. With each new generation, the bulb typically grows weaker and weaker, until it has no strength left to flower and withers away. It is for this reason that growers today view breaks not as a benefit but as a danger that must be purged (else it infect and weaken other Tulips around them). And this is also why legends of old, like the Semper Augustus, are now lost forever.
Fortunately, there is still hope for these incredible flowers. A few broken breeds, such as the Absalon and Mabel, have somehow remained free of the worst effects of the virus and been able to successfully propagate in perpetuity (Absalon has existed since 1780!). And small groups and societies continue to grow and breed Broken Bulbs, unable to resist their beauty (see below for an example of a recent breed so beautiful that the provider asked to be unnamed for fear of a flood of demand). One can only hope that, in time, we will find a way to safely return this beauty to the mainstream of the Tulip world for everyone to enjoy.
If you are planning to grow Broken Tulips in your garden, extra precautions should be taken to prevent the virus from spreading to your healthy Tulips (and Lilies). It is recommended to plant them far away from other flowers, as the virus (spread by aphids and other sucking insects) can be difficult to contain once it spreads.
Broken Tulip photographs courtesy of Takao Inoue (www.takaoinoue.com), final image provided by a small grower society that asked to remain anonymous.
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