Tulips – a Tiptoe Through History & General Information



These flowers we greet as a sign of spring originated as wild flowers in Central Asia, and were cultivated by the Turks as early as 1,000 AD.  In 1556, Busbeq (A.G. Busbequius) noted tulips growing in the gardens of Constantinople while he was serving as the ambassador of Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

The word “tulip” as used in Europe is believed to derive from Busbeq’s letters from Turkey, and from the Ottoman Turkish word for turban: tulbend.  This name may have been used due to the perceived resemblance of the bloom to a turban, or because it was fashionable in the Ottoman Empire to wear tulips on turbans.  After he returned to Vienna, Busbeq provided several tulip bulbs and seeds to the famous botanist Carolus Clusius, who first planted the tulips in the Imperial Gardens of Vienna in 1573.  Clusius then became head botanist for the University of Leiden in the Dutch Republic in 1593.  At Leiden’s innovative botanical garden, Clusius cultivated tulip bulbs and seeds, and is known for introducing the flower to the Dutch Republic (now the Netherlands).  Actually the tulip had been cultivated in private gardens in Antwerp and Amsterdam for several decades prior, but had not become well known. Through experimentation, Clusius and other horticulturalists produced new color variations in tulips, including the most elegant and vividly colored Semper Augustus, which was white with red flames.


Once the Dutch became aware of this exotic new flower in their midst, they became greedy for bulbs—both to grow in their own gardens, and as a potential moneymaker.  Bulb thefts occurred from Clusius’ gardens in 1596 and 1598.  These stolen bulbs may have become the basis for the future tulip industry.


The popularity of the tulip in the Dutch Republic pinnacled in the years 1636-37, during an economic craze known as tulipmania.  One farmer directly negotiated with a flower-seller in this period and paid the following for a single tulip bulb: two loads of wheat and four loads of rye, four fat oxen, eight pigs, a dozen sheep, two oxheads of wine, four tons of butter, a thousand pounds of cheese, a bed, some clothing, and a silver beaker.  This payment was estimated to be worth about 2,500 guilders.  A Semper Augustus during this time could bring close to 6,000 guilders.  To put this amount in perspective, an average Dutch worker earned 150 guilders (or florins) per year.

New Tulip

A tulip just starting to pop up at the Arboretum

Because the bulbs had to be cultivated and could not be sold until they were ready, the Dutch also sold promissory notes guaranteeing future delivery of the tulip bulbs, and these notes would be sold and resold at marked up prices.  The key to making money was to sell the note before the tulip could be delivered.  This trade in the future promise of tulips became known as tulipwindhandel, literally tulip wind trade.  Many Dutch citizens became angry at what was perceived as corruption in their flower market, and the government enforced economic controls by passing statutes in 1637.  The history of the tulip from 1550 to 1650 reflects the growing trade with non-European economies, the rise in learning and scientific experimentation, and the boom in the market for luxury goods.


Widely available now at much more modest prices, tulips are still closely associated with the Netherlands.  However, this perennial bulbous plant that is in the lily family has a native range from the Iberian Peninsula, through North Africa to Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, across the Levant eastward through southern Siberia and Mongolia, to the Northwest of China.  Tulips need a period of cool dormancy, known as vernalization.  They thrive best in climates with long cool springs and dry summers.  In warm winter areas, they can be planted in the fall as annuals.


There are now approximately 5,600 types of tulips identified, and 2,600 types are grown commercially.  Tulip bulbs can reproduce by the bulb producing an offset (and that resulting plant will have the same genetic character as the mother bulb) or by seed (which takes 5 to 7 years to produce a bulb, and genetic variation will occur).  It took until the 1920’s for scientists to determine that a mosaic virus carried by aphids was causing the solid color tulips to stripe (such as Semper Augustus).  Thus they were not strong bulbs and did not reproduce well.  That virus is now under control, and our current fancy striped and multicolored tulips are developed by hybridizers to be safe and strong.


In Iowa, the best time to plant tulips is October, so roots can develop before the ground freezes, but they can be planted as late as December if soil remains unfrozen.  They perform best in partial to full sun and well drained soil, needing at least 6 hours of full sun per day.  Plant 6 to 8 inches deep.  Most modern tulip varieties bloom well only for three to four years, although some classes can bloom over a longer time period.  There are so many types of tulips, it could be well worth some research if you want to plant a large number—depending on whether your goal is a few years of a fantastic show, or a longer period of more traditional bloom.


Tulips are a favorite for cut bouquets too.  When they receive proper care, cut tulips can stay fresh in a vase for seven to ten days.  For long lasting cut tulips, choose buds that are tight or still unopened, recut the stems diagonally when you get home, and place them in lukewarm water that has floral preservative added (such as that packet you often receive with bouquets).   An interesting fact is that tulips continue to grow after being cut, up to one inch.  As they are phototrophic, bending to light, you should rotate your vase daily, and keep water fresh.  You may want to consider color too if you are gifting.   Red tulips traditionally represent passion and love, yellow in the past were associated with jealousy or hopeless love—but now can represent sunny hope and cheerful thoughts, white tulips represent apology, pink represent happiness and confidence, and purple the color of royalty or accomplishment.


We hope this bit of history and general information will enhance your enjoyment this spring of the tulip display planted last fall at Cedar Valley Arboretum and Botanic Gardens in the raised beds of the display area!


By: Pat McGivern














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