Flora Feature: Tulips

While most admirers of tulips think of tulips as spring plants, most garden enthusiasts like to think of tulips as a fall endeavor. All of the tulips seen in Madison Square Park are actually planted in fall. They are the last bulbs to be planted for the season – our gardeners wait until late October to plant our tulips as soil temperatures should be cool while these bulbs are in a state of dormancy known as vernalization. Tulips are indigenous to mountain regions with temperate climates and especially thrive in climates with long cool springs and dry summers.



About 75 wild species of tulip are currently acknowledged. These wild tulips grow in western Asia, northern Africa, the Middle East, and much of Eastern Europe. That’s right – Holland is not the tulip’s native growing environment. It is unknown who first introduced tulips to Northwestern Europe, but the earliest descriptive account was in 1559 by Conrad Gessner. Gessner described tulips flowering in the garden of Councilor Herward in Augsburg Bavaria.



Carolus Clusius planted tulips in the Botanical Gardens of Vienna in 1573 and later when he was the director of Leiden University’s Hortus Botanicus in the Netherlands. From there its popularity spread quickly. Clusius wrote several major pieces on tulips, and soon he found bulbs disappearing from Hortus Botanicus by the hundreds. Between 1634 and 1637 the early enthusiasm for the new flowers sparked tulip mania, a frenzy in which tulips became so expensive that they were treated as currency. This event is often considered to be the first large economic bubble. Different colored tulips were grown and sold at this time, but none were more converted then the ones with broken, or multicolored petals. We now know that the beauty of these expensive ‘broken’ tulips was caused by a virus. While the virus produced fantastically colorful flowers, these plants were weakened and prone to decline. Today’s multicolored varieties are produced by extensive breeding and the virus has been almost completely eradicated from the tulip trade.



In Persia, the gift of a red or yellow tulip was a declaration of love. The black center symbolized a heart burned by passion. During the Ottoman Empire the tulip became popular and seen as a symbol of abundance and indulgence. The wealthiest era of the Ottoman Empire is often referred to as the tulip era (Lale Devri). The Ottoman court society had their own craze of tulips at this time with tulips being featured in everything from clothing to culture. The demand grew within the elite community with tulip parties becoming popular as a symbol of wealth and privilege. Tulipa acuminata is the only remaining survivor of the type so popular in the Ottoman Empire during this time. While tulips in the Netherlands were prized for their colors and patterns, tulips in the Ottoman Empire were prized for having unique leaf shapes. T. acuminata has thin, long, strap like leaves. This species was unfortunately harvested to extinction in its native environment and has only survived in cultivation through the efforts of botanical preservation.

Tulips will not all flower at the same time. Our fountain display features a striking combination of red, orange, white, and yellow early tulips that are in bloom now. Their fiery colors are quite a show stopper. Our favorite variety in this display, Tulip ‘Flair’ is less than 7 inches tall and has beautiful red and yellow stripes. We are also incredibly fond of the two species tulips planted around our English Elm stump. Tulip ‘Fuselie’ and Tulip ‘Shogun’ are so small and dainty; most would not recognize them as tulips. ‘Shogun’ has beautiful blue styles against orange petals.