The tulip is celebrated for its elegantly accented, extraordinarily colored petals. Did you know that this flower has an equally dynamic history surrounding it? In “The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Men,” British gardening writer Anna Pavord discusses how the tulip traveled from Asia to Europe and the Americas, an evolution that captures the tale of its mystery and mystique.
Tulips trace their origin to central Asia. The sultans of the Ottoman empire coveted the flower, which the Turks called “lale” (pronounced lah-lay). The European name “tulip” that we recognize derives from the Turkish word meaning turban. In “The Tulip,” Pavord attributes the confusion in the name to its translation. Members of the Turkish royal family would often be seen with single stems of the flowers tucked into the folds of their turbans.
The association with the Netherlands and tulips dates to approximately 1593. By the early part of the 17th century, the tulip became synonymous with luxury and wealth. Tulips with elaborate feathering or scalloped edges on their petals were especially prized. You might hear the term “flames” associated with tulips. They refer to the streaks of contrasting color that ascend the length of the petals from their centers. Feathers or feathering refers to the border of contrasting color at the tops of the flowers. During the 20th century, research revealed that these color variations were the result of a virus spread by aphids.
As tulips rose in popularity in the Netherlands, the bulbs became highly valued. A futures market rapidly developed, with the bulbs being traded for significant sums of money and property. Between 1634 and 1637, the obsession with tulips in the global market fueled a phenomenon know as “Tulipmania” or “Tulipomania.” In her book, Pavord notes that the most prized tulip variety, ‘Semper Augustus’—a red-and-white striped variety—traded for close to 10,000 florins. In contrast, the average family living in the Netherlands at the time had a household income of about 150 florins. People traded property for tulip bulbs. Eventually, the tulip market ended, but the Dutch influence on the popularization of tulips didn’t cease. Today, the Netherlands remains the world’s largest commercial exporter of tulips.
Explore the following glossary of tulip shapes as well as a list of dramatic tulip varieties. For more facts about tulips, plus more than 150 color plates of tulip artifacts and art, pick up a copy of Pavord’s “The Tulip.”
Shapes of Tulips
Double tulips have a double crown of flowers. These tulips may bloom early or late in the spring, depending on the variety.
Fringed tulips bear a crenulated or cut edge. These tulips typically bloom in the middle to late spring.
As their name suggests, lily-flowering tulips resemble lilies with their distinctive petal designs. These tulips are typically late-spring bloomers.
Like the extraordinary colors of parrot plumage, parrot tulips have delicate scalloped or feathered edges on their petals. These tulips are mid- to late-spring bloomers.
This traditional shape can bloom early or late in the spring, depending on the variety. Specific classes of single tulips include Darwin and Triumph tulips.
Varieties of Tulips
A double, peony-flowered tulip variety with double rows of deep pink to purple velvety petals. Blooms late spring.
A lily-flowering variety featuring feathered lemon-yellow petal edges and a red interior. Blooms late spring.
A highly fragrant Parrot variety with dark purple flowers edged in black. Blooms late spring.
A dramatic Parrot variety with oversized carmine petals and light feathering of green and white. Blooms late spring.
An heirloom single variety with shades of burnt orange, gold and yellow. Blooms midseason to late spring.
Featuring extra-large fringed flowers, the blossoms on ‘Cummins’ can grow to 4 inches wide. Petals are lavender-purple on the outside, but white on the inside and bearing a white fringe. Blooms late spring.
A fringed tulip variety with deep crimson leaves and canary fringes. Blooms midseason to late spring.
A brilliantly colored Parrot variety with primrose yellow petals, crimson flames rising up the petals and delicate fringe on the edges. Blooms late spring.
‘Lac van Rijn’
A single variety dating to the 1620s with burgundy-and-ivory blooms that emit a sweet fragrance. Blooms early to midseason.
A double, rose-flowered variety with a double set of petals. Blooms late spring.
An oversized Parrot variety with ruffled white blooms. Blooms late spring.
‘Van der Neer’
An 186os-era heirloom single variety featuring rose-purple flowers. Blooms early spring.
A lily-flowering variety with pale rose, tawny yellow highlights and green flames on the petals with a coloration that matures to a darker purplish-pink. Blooms late spring.
A double, peony-flowered variety with flowers whose heads can easily reach a span of about 4 inches across. Purplish-red petals with creamy-white petal edges. Blooms late spring.
Look for “The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad” on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.