tulip origin

Jim McKenney jimmckenney@jimmckenney.com
Mon, 29 Oct 2007 08:56:57 PDT
Ben Zonneveld asked: "Can you give your arguments for the following
"The first tulips arriving in W Europe were evidently garden tulips not wild

It seems to me that two sorts of evidence point to this. One is what I will
call the Anna Pavord argument. Although there is much in Pavord's book on
tulips with which I would quibble, her treatment of the place of the tulip
in the Ottoman Empire strikes me as plausible. We'll probably never know if
the plants grown in the Ottoman Empire were garden tulips or wild-collected
tulips, but the popularity of tulips as garden plants in the Ottoman Empire
would argue that garden strains would have arisen quickly. The tulips we see
as decorative motifs on tiles and in carpets and other art ware do not in
general look like wild tulips. In particular, they have long, pointed
petals. One might debate the significance of this: almost certainly, some of
the artists who produced such images were simply repeating stylized,
traditional images and might never have seen a true tulip in bloom. 

And doesn't it seem likely that in a country where tulips grow wild
gardeners would bring them into gardens, exchange them, and either
deliberately raise them from seed or let nature take its course as the
insects hybridize the heterogeneous assemblages of plants gardeners
accumulate? Seeds would fall onto fertile ground, at least in the sense that
they would fall in a climate to which tulips are adapted. It would be the
most natural thing in the world for Turkish gardens of the time to produce
hybridized tulips - hybridized by the insects or hybridized by the
gardeners, but hybrids to be sure. 

And there is this: the bulb trade already seems to have existed within the
Ottoman Empire when it began to open up to European trade. Originally the
bulbs were probably marketed for human food. The first Europeans to tap into
the bulb trade were simply expanding an existing market.

As an aside, how many of you saw the recent article in the food section of
one of the major newspapers in which a sort of rubbery ice cream had been
developed based on old concoctions made with salep. Evidently the salep
trade continues to this day in Turkey. 

The second major sort of "evidence" is the rapid diversification of the
tulip in western European gardens. If western garden tulips had been derived
from a single species of tulip, the probability is that this would not have
occurred so rapidly. It would have taken at least two dissimilar parents
contributing to the mix to get the sort of variation which seems to have
characterized even the early tulips. 

For those of you who don't know the early history of the tulip in western
Europe, keep this in mind: by the end of the sixteenth century - at most a
quarter century after they had been introduced to the Netherlands - there
already existed short early blooming tulips, tall late blooming tulips, and
tulips intermediate to those. The diversity of varieties was already
bewildering then. 

It isn't known for sure if the earliest tulips to be introduced to the
Netherlands were in the form of seeds or bulbs. What is known is that
whatever those objects were, they were shriveled and over a year old. That
means that those earliest years would have been very slow going: old seed
likely would not have germinated rapidly, and last year's bulbs would have
gotten off to a very slow start. And if those original bits were seed, then
it's likely that seven years passed before there was a first flower. The
point to which I'm driving here is that tulip culture did not get off to a
good start: many years probably passed before there were results, and even
then it's unlikely that the whole world turned tulip crazy overnight.  It is
conceivable that, given the rarity of tulips and the high esteem in which
they were held, that every available seed was sown and nurtured. But would
twenty-five years be enough time to accommodate both this slow start and
also to produce the sort of diversity which tulips quickly evidenced if the
original material was a highly homozygous single species? I think that is
very unlikely. 

The argument for origin from two species (and by species I mean plants which
correspond to diploid, sexually reproducing wild populations) is hardly any
more plausible. To begin with, to get a mixture of heights early low growing
tulips and late tall tulips would have to be crossed. To have accomplished
this quickly, those earliest tulip growers would have had to know how to
save pollen from the early sorts to use on the late blooming sorts. A lot of
other things would have had to happen just right to allow all of this to
happen. So it seems to me possible, but hardly probable. 

Rather than simply speculate about what happened back then, consider what
has happened in our own times. It's been nearly a century since the original
crosses were made to produce the Darwin Hybrid tulips by crossing Tulipa
fosteriana with the Darwin tulips. After nearly a century of work with this
group, the color range is still rather restrained. The plants which have
been marketed (I have no idea what the breeders might have discarded as
unsuitable to their goals) are very uniform in height and size of flower.
The point I'm trying to make here is that with nearly three times as much
time devoted to the development of this group, the variation achieved is
relatively insignificant compared to what seems to have arisen among the
earliest garden tulips within only a few decades. 

The same seems to be true for the other hybrid groups developed in modern
times: the kaufmanniana/greigii hybrids are much alike as a group, again
after a full century of garden development. 

All of this suggests to me that the original tulips introduced into western
Europe were highly heterozygous, and that points to hybrid origin either in
the garden or in the wild.  

Now let me take this discussion of the origin of tulips in Europe in a
different direction. When asked when tulips were introduced to Europe, I
always equivocate a bit. The earliest tulips to arrive in Europe might have
arrived as food stuff transported by ancient Mediterranean tradesmen or
soldiers. At any rate, some would attribute the scattered tulip populations
in otherwise improbable western European locations to this cause.        

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, where the sun is out and the
autumn crocuses are opening. 

My Virtual Maryland Garden http://www.jimmckenney.com/

 BLOG! http://mcwort.blogspot.com/
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin http://www.pvcnargs.org/ 
Webmaster Potomac Lily Society http://www.potomaclilysociety.org/

More information about the pbs mailing list