Tulips—once worth more than gold
September 14, 2011
  • /Crop Sciences
The history of the tulip begins with tulipmania in the mid-1620s when tulip bulbs were sold for incredibly high prices and fortunes were made and lost with overnight speculating in tulip bulbs, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"It is reported that tulips were worth more than gold," said Martha Smith. "Initially the tulip was a rarity only the very wealthy could afford," she said. "In 1624 the price of one Rembrandt-type bulb reached the equivalent of $1,500. At the time, this was 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman or the price of a large house.

"Fortunately for us, the cost of tulip bulbs today is nowhere near the current price of gold. We can easily purchase tulips and other spring-blooming bulbs to plant in our gardens in October."

Smith said the tulip was originally a wildflower grown in Central Asia. It was first cultivated by the Turks as early as 1,000 AD. The tulip's history in The Netherlands didn't begin until 1593 when botanist Carolus Clusius discovered them growing in Vienna and began cultivating them in The Netherlands. According to lore, a group of Dutchmen stole a portion of Clusius's collection and cultivated seed for sale.

Smith recommended selecting early-, mid-, and late-season tulips for a long bloom time in your garden. Look for varieties that are known to be true perennials so you'll have a greater chance that they will all come back each year.

Early bloomers tend to be shorter and do best in the front of the garden where they can be seen. They bloom in late winter when most people are not frequently outdoors so plant them in a highly visible area such as one viewed from a window, along a walk or driveway.

"They bloom when temperatures are cooler so the blooms last longer, and by the time you are out working in your garden the foliage has died back," said Smith. "Tulips need about 6 weeks for the foliage to die back. Foliage from early bloomers will be gone by the time you want to begin gardening."

Species tulips are generally 6 to 10 inches tall with early- to mid-season flowers that open wider than the later-blooming Darwin types. Some offer a double show such as T. clusiana var. chrycantha. When chrycantha petals are closed, you see the bright red exterior but when they open, you see the clear sunny yellow interior.

Those listed as mid-season will bloom as the days are warming up. Triumph tulips are mainly used for forcing and are therefore the largest group of tulips blooming mid-spring in USDA zones 3 to 8. Although they are very showy with clear colors, many are not reliably perennial.

Darwin hybrid tulips are best for perennializing, returning every year. Generally mid-spring bloomers average 18 to 22 inches tall. A mass planting of Darwin tulips is an impressive sight to see. Plant these mid- to back-of-the-border to allow the foliage to die back unnoticed. Apeldorn (red), golden apledorn (yellow), and blushing apledorn (two-toned red/yellow) combine very well. Or simply select one color such as pink impression and plant en masse.

"Late season you have a wide variety of single and double tulips," she said. "Double bloomers are also called rose or peony-type and offer multiple layers of flowers petals. Blooming late-spring, you may risk a shorter flower display if summer heat arrives early.

"Angelique is a beautiful pale, lilac-pink mixed with streaks of white and cream. It is fragrant and a popular choice but is not a dependable perennial. If you simply must have Angelique, treat it like an annual. Don't bother waiting for the foliage to die back; simply cut the plant to the ground after it is bloomed out and replant next fall. To ensure bulbs will come back, select varieties known to perennialize."