Broken tulip

Purple Prince Tulip

"When the tulip's heart I viewed
With the gaze of certitude,
All I saw was ecstasy,
Sighs, & sobbing bitterly."

-Allama Iqbal,


In 2004 our drift of 'Purple Prince' out by the alley were all identical egg-shaped purple tuilps of quite the ordinary type. But in March & April 2005, three of them came up with white feathering on the outer petals & were much more fabulously beautiful than before.

Possibly as many as one in every one-hundred tulips of a given kind will develop these feathery streaks. Such unexpected features are caused by a virus & they are called "broken tulips" because the virus breaks up the colors, or they are called "Rembrandt tulips" because broken tulips were at the heart of the tulipmania of Rembrandt's age, & Dutch masters were hired to paint broken tulips to preserve the record of their beauty, since the virus-infected flowers were not long-lived & were difficult to propogate. In many a case, the price of the painting was vastly more affordable than the purchase of the bulb.

Dutch growers are today banned from growing them on purpose, except by special dispensation to preserve heirloom broken tulips at The Hortus Bulborium in Holland. Due to the beauty of the type, some growers have developed a few non-viral strains that have features of broken tulips, & there are tulip enthusiasts outside of The Netherlands who seek out & preserve infected tulips & attempt to develop more easily propogated strains, under the premise that it is possible to develop tulips that live more in harmony with their illness.

During the heyday of the tulip craze nobody knew it was caused by a virus & such tulips had a premium value. Virus-infected bulbs are painfully slow to reproduce offsets, if they can do it at all. Historically this difficulty of propagation made them all the more desirable, & any weak bulblets that could be obtained off the parent bulb of broken tulips could be sold or traded for extravagant sums, despite that buying a small offset would be something of a pig-in-a-poke which might never mature to a flowerful bulb at all.

In the 1630s a single broken tulip bulb sold for 3,000 guilders, a sum that could've bought a villa. Peasant farmers were buying up cheap tulip bulbs by the thousands, knowing that one percent of them would be likely to crop up "broken" in a year or two, & the best examples could be sold for sums that would mean a fortune even if the rest of the tulip crop were ignored.

Speculators indeed made heady profits, but inevitably the market collapsed, & many were bankrupt. The period of tulipmania ended as a social & economic disaster.

The Hortus Bulborium in Holland, & Old House Gardens of Ann Arbor Michigan, are preserving & propogating heirloom broken tulips which are on the market as Zomerschoon tulips. These can cost ten or fifteen dollars per bulb, because there is no way around the problem that they do not propagate easily. More affordable strains of broken tulips are also sold as Rembrandt Tulips, which are not the original Rembrandts, but are look-alikes without the virus. We had one of these Rembrandts called 'Princess Irene,' but it so swiftly declined that I have my doubts that all these look-alikes are as virus-free as claimed.

The infected bulbs weaken year by year, producing smaller & smaller flowers, & eventually petering out. But, well, many of the highly hybridized standard tulips do that anyway, so it's not a big deal. Old House Gardens claims that the virus is in the main benign, & should be thought of in terms of the microorganisms used to make cheese or sourdough bread.

But not many are convinced that tulip-breaking virus (TBV) is benign, & it is a standard recommendation not to grow broken tulips in close proximity to uninfected tulips, as aphids spread TBV from bulb to bulb. Commercial growers dig out the broken tulips out & destroy them as a matter of course. On the other hand, flower shows permit broken tulips to be displayed, & these odd flowers have not lost their ability to fascinate, even if no one is going bankrupt for them anymore.

I frankly don't know whether to believe Old House Gardens & Hortus Bulborium, that the virus is benign & the tulips excellent for the garden, or Cornell University's Horticultural Extension, which recommends getting rid of any broken tulips that appear in the garden before the disease spreads & weakens every tulip in sight. Cornell also recommended never planting Rembrandts or other intentionally broken varieties, apparently disbelieving vendors' claims that the modern Rembrandts are virus-free.

My present intent is to just let the alleyside drift of tulips do as it pleases, & if more of the Purple Princes turn up broken in the future, they'll be lovely tulips for as long as they last. There are a few other tulips planted in the vicinity, & if it becomes evident in the next couple of years that TBV is ruining all the tulips along the alley, then I will consider destroying any broken tulips that appear before it gets to the main gardens' species tulips. For the time being I'm crossing my fingers that Old House Gardens' statement of benignity is as good an opinion as the other.


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