Broken Tulips – The Beautiful Curse

Broken Tulip

The Amsterdam Tulip Museum is a welcome resource for anyone interested in tulips and who happens to be visiting the capital of the Netherlands. Now they have started to share their knowledge and information online at https://amsterdamtulipmuseumonline.com

My earlier post gave some impression of the quality of the museum and its shop and to support their new initiative I have invited one of their team to write a short piece on just one aspect of what can be found within this new online source of accurate information.

Broken Tulips – The Beautiful Curse

By Chris Schipper (@Tulip_Facts)

Flared and striking, so called “Broken Tulips” (or ‘Rembrandts’) are like nothing else in the Tulip world, really like nothing else in the entire flower world. Their bright colors and distinctive streaks immediately grab the eye and don’t let go.

In the 17th century, at the height of the Dutch Tulip Mania, it was these flowers that had everyone running wild. With exalted names like ‘Viceroy’ and the legendary ‘Semper Augustus’, a single bulb could sell for more than a house. Breeders were so desperate to produce them that they turned to things like adding paint to the soil, or buying ‘miracle potions’ from street vendors (unsurprisingly, these did not work).

Now, almost four hundred years later, these once revered flowers have fallen from their pedestal, only grown by hobbyists and rare specialty breeders (although you can see a few in the Hortus Bulborum’s collection garden in Limmen, Holland). In fact, broken Tulips are illegal in the Netherlands today without special provisions.

So what caused this dramatic shift?

Unfortunately, the source of their beauty is also a curse. While Tulip fanatics had long noticed that broken Tulips came smaller and weaker than others, it was not until 1928 that scientist Dorothy Cayley discovered the cause to be a virus.

This ‘Tulip breaking virus’ infects the bulb and causes the flower to ‘break’ its single lock. However, it also weakens the bulb and inhibits the proper development of ‘offsets’, new bulbs genetically identical to their mother. These new bulbs also carry the virus, and the degradation continues until, in most cases, the genetic line is wiped out.  It is for this reason that legendary breeds like the Semper Augustus are now extinct, lost in time to the very thing that made it so famous.

Worst of all, this virus is easily spread by aphids and other sucking insects, and can infect other Tulips or Lilies, and so for a typical garden it is NOT something you want to see (and if you do, it is recommended that you dig out the flowers and remove the bulbs).

Fortunately, for those of us that find the flared look too beautiful to resist, options do exist!  For centuries, breeders have been hard at work to replicate the brilliant colors, but in a healthy and virus-free manner, and the results are striking. If you are excited about the look of these so-called ‘Modern Rembrandts’, some breeds you could consider are:

Marilyn – White with red streaks that recall the famed Semper Augustus

Flaming Parrot – Deep red flames on a lovely primrose yellow

Prinses Irene – Orange flowers licked with purplish flames

But how would you use them in your garden? As always, that’s up to you, but some looks that seem to work well are placing them in pots where they stand tall and independently, or planting them in little clumps against a neutral background (where their striking colors will stand out even stronger!). Some may require more creative thinking than others, but in return they can offer a truly unique display worth a try one season!

To learn more about Broken Tulips and the rest of the Tulip’s incredible history, visit us at https://amsterdamtulipmuseumonline.com, or follow @Tulip_Facts on Twitter and Instagram.

Modern rembrandt images courtesy of Colorblends Wholesale Flowerbulbs (https://www.colorblends.com/), Semper Augustus image courtesy of the Amsterdam Tulip Museum (https://amsterdamtulipmuseumonline.com), close-up photo of a Broken Tulip courtesy of a small breeder society that requested to remain anonymous, Broken Tulips in gardens images courtesy of artist Takao Inoue (https://www.takaoinoue.com).
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