It did happen quite a while ago, in the seventeenth century in fact, but it’s a pretty interesting story. Tulips are native to Turkey and were first introduced into The Netherlands in 1590 by a botanist named Carolus Clusius.  He obtained seeds from a high ranking friend in Turkey and began growing and breeding them.  Among these were some so-called ‘broken’ tulips in which the dark color of the petal was broken by varying patterns of light to white streaks, stripes or flames.  As people learned of these unique new tulips, their value increased dramatically.  In the early 1600s, the Dutch were experiencing a strong economy and many people had assets to invest.  The rare and coveted tulips were often obtained by the trading of an entire business or fortune on the speculation that the value would increase.  A single bulb is reported to have sold for 3000 guilders, equivalent to approximately $1700 today.  The broken tulip variety known as Semper Augustus was the most expensive tulip sold during the tulip craze and is pictured.  The artist is unknown; the image is from   Tulipsemperaugustus

People recognized that these beautiful tulips were a temporary treasure…they observed that after a few years of blooming, the bulbs producing the broken tulips became weak, resulting in first smaller flowers and shorter stems but eventually no flower at all and bulb death. Because of this, many paintings of the striking blooms were commissioned during the peak of ‘tulipomania’ in the 1630s to preserve their beauty.

As it turns out, the beautiful streaking in the petals (and the decline of the plant over time) was and is caused by a virus. The most common is tulip breaking virus (TBV) but there are several others that cause similar symptoms.  It wasn’t discovered that a virus was the cause until the 1930s but by 1637, it was discovered that the tulip breaking trait could be passed from one bulb to another by grafting and the market for the broken tulips crashed, along with many investors’ assets.  Some describe this whole scenario as the first stock market.

How does the virus cause streaking or other patterns in the petals? The virus results in the lightening or darkening of the thin surface layer of cells by the inhibition or over production of pigments called anthocyanins in certain areas.  Only dark colored tulips can be ‘broken’ by the production of light colored areas due to the virus.  White and yellow flowered tulips can be infected but symptoms only occur on leaves as mottling because the petals don’t contain any anthocyanins (red to blue to purple pigments).  TBV is distributed throughout the world wherever tulips are grown but today is most prevalent in southern Europe.

As mentioned, the virus(es) can be spread from one bulb to another via grafting. They are also vectored or spread by several aphid species. Because the virus does result in a loss of health for the plant, many of the original ‘cultivars’ are now extinct. There was also a lot of variability and unpredictability in the virus-infected plants’ patterns making the purchase of a bulb not yet in flower truly speculative.  Today many countries, including the United States, prohibit the commercial sale of bulbs known to be infected.  Plant breeders have developed many beautiful varieties using traditional plant breeding that have striking color patterns and variegations in the petals reminiscent of those famous ‘ancestors’ from the seventeenth century.  In closing, I’ll share a verse from the poet Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) regarding the love for the breaking tulips:

“The tulip next appeared, all over gay,
But wanton, full of pride, and full of play;
The world can’t show a dye but here has place;
Nay, by new mixtures, she can change her face;
Purple and gold are both beneath her care,
The richest needlework she loves to wear;
Her only study is to please the eye,

And to outshine the rest in finery.”

By J. Allen