Tulips are colourful flowers that are a beautiful part of spring. The lovely crocus flowers have already appeared and gone where I live, but the tulips are a worthy successor. They belong to the lily family and the genus Tulipa. I don’t have tulips in my garden, but I see and admire the flowers in landscaped areas near my home.
I took the photos of the flowers below (except for the ones in the tulip field) during a walk in downtown Vancouver. The area has many flower containers and beds that have attractive displays. Though most people are familiar with cultivated tulips, the plants still exist in the wild in parts of Asia and Europe. They are believed to have originated in Central Asia.
Several stories describing the origin of the name “tulip” exist. Most say that the name is derived from the Turkish word for turban. The link between turbans and tulips may have developed because the shape of the turban was thought to resemble the shape of a tulip or because of the once-common habit of wearing tulips on the turban.
Tulips are perennial and herbaceous plants. It may seem that they die before winter arrives, but their bulbs survive underground and produce new shoots in the spring. Some of the many varieties that exist may not do well in their second year, however. In these cases, people prefer to grow the plants as annuals.
Though tulips are commonly said to have six petals, technically these are tepals, not petals. Most flowers have a ring of coloured petals and a ring of green sepals underneath. In some flowers the petals and sepals look the same and are the same colour. In this case they are referred to as tepals.
Flowers and Leaves
Tulip flowers have some beautiful colours and patterns. As the Missouri Botanical Garden says, though, the one colour that’s missing is “true blue”. Some major colours are shown in the last photo below, but yellow and purple flowers are missing. In addition, different shades of the colours, variegated flowers, and ones with white areas on the tepals exist. The edges of the tepals may be smooth or ruffled.
The leaves are wrapped around the base of the flower stem. They are long and narrow and have a pointed tip. They are sometimes strap shaped. The leaves generally have a dull green or a blue-green colour.
The plants grow best in full sunlight and well-drained soil. They bloom in April and May. The bulbs should be planted in the fall at a depth of three times the length of the bulb and two to five inches apart. Gardening sites say that they do well in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8. They certainly grow well here in southwestern British Columbia.
Tulip bulbs are poisonous and should be kept out of the reach of children and pets. Eating the bulbs can cause gastrointestinal problems such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and increased salivation. Some people have also experienced weakness and heart palpitations.
People apparently recover a few days after exposure to the toxins, but the condition is not one to take lightly. Some people may be more sensitive to the effects of the bulbs than others and some bulbs may contain more of the harmful chemicals than other ones. The bulbs are sometimes mistaken for onions due to their layered appearance when they are cut open.
During the second world war, people in the Netherlands were starving and dying. Tulip bulbs and sugar beets were almost the only thing to eat. The bulbs were peeled, their centre was removed, and they were boiled. People alive today survived the experience, although they report that the bulbs caused indigestion if too many were eaten.
The story is interesting, and of course it’s good that the bulbs helped people to survive, but it doesn’t mean that we should feel free to experiment with eating tulip bulbs today. The local varieties that we have access to may be very different from the ones available in the Netherlands in the 1940s and may contain more dangerous toxins or a higher concentration of the chemicals. As the National Capital Poison Center says, “Tulips should not be considered food”.
Some people develop “tulip fingers” after handling the plants. The term refers to the allergic contact dermatitis that develops. The skin develops an itchy rash caused by exposure to a chemical called 6-tuliposide A as well as to several other types of tuliposides in the plant. (Though tuliposides were named for their presence in tulips, they are also found in some other plants.)
The 6-tuliposide A breaks down into tulipan A, which is also irritating to the skin. This compound helps to protect the plant from a fungal attack. Wearing gloves when handling the plants can offer protection from the dermatitis.
Despite their genteel garden image, tulips in the wild are native to harsh landscapes in hard-to-reach corners of the world. They’re often found clinging to barren mountain ledges exposed to wind, cold and drought. — Amsterdam Tulip Museum
Cultivated Tulips in the Netherlands
The Netherlands has a strong association with tulips. The country has an ideal climate and soil for tulip cultivation and grows a huge number of the plants. Scenes of masses of colourful flower growing together in fields are impressive. In 2017, the country produced over two billion tulips.
People travel to the country in the spring to see and photograph the tulip fields. Cycling is said to be an ideal way to explore the countryside in the area. Buses travel to the fields, too. The flowers are so important in the local culture (and with travellers) that a tulip museum is located in Amsterdam.
The terms “the Netherlands” and “Holland” are often used interchangeably. Officially, the word “Holland” refers to only two provinces in the country.
In the seventeenth century, an interesting event linked to tulips occurred in the Netherlands. The event is referred to as “tulip mania”. Bulbs of unusual and desirable tulips became very valuable and were traded for huge sums of money. The demand for certain bulbs exceeded the supply and speculation was common. Eventually the bubble burst and the price of the bulbs fell dramatically. Sadly, many people were financially ruined by the crash.
The sight of new flowers in bloom is a lovely part of Spring. I intend to take more photographs of tulips as the season progresses. I enjoy finding and photographing different varieties as well as looking at familiar ones. I’d love to visit the Netherlands to look at the tulip fields, but that’s unlikely to happen. Fortunately, there’s a wide selection of tulips to observe in my part of the world.
- Tulip information from the Missouri Botanical Garden
- Facts about the plants from the Amsterdam Tulip Museum
- Tulip bulb toxicity from the National Poison Control Center
- Some facts about tulip fingers from the compoundchem website
- Information about tulip mania from Encyclopedia Britannica