Tip Top Tulips: The King is in the house

Stripy tulips have a sick and sinister past. The patterns are caused by a virus. Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Tulips. CC. https://flic.kr/p/efAqg4

Stripy tulips have a sick and sinister past. Their light-coloured patterns are caused by a virus. Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Tulips. CC. https://flic.kr/p/efAqg4

 

Amelia: Ladies and gentleman, please help me welcome our special guest…King Tulip!

Tulip: Thank you, thank you very much.

A: What a thrill it is to speak with you after your tour of the Canadian Tulip Festival.

T: My pleasure, I adore interviews. My miraculous bloom only opens for two to three weeks, and I can’t let all this beauty go to waste.

A: You’re one of North America’s most popular garden flowers, but where are you from, originally?

T: This flawless flower has a rocky past. Literally. I was born in Central Asia on the side of the mountain. Every day I struggled against the harsh winds and extreme temperatures. Close to the ground with yawning petals like a daisy, I looked very different than I do today.

A: So what changed?

T: Around 1000 AD some adventurous Turk picked me up and decided to grow me in their garden. I guess I was already too beautiful to pass up. After 700 years of intense breeding I had my first make-over, with needle-sharp petals and an almond shape. They just loved growing me in Turkey.

A: But you were meant to see the world, right?

T: Yesiree, I’m a Rollin’ stone. The Viennese Ambassador to Turkey brought me home to Europe in 1551. Scientist Carolus Clusius was the first one to plant me in the Netherlands. He just wanted me for research, and wouldn’t share his precious bulbs with anyone else. How rude. I knew I was destined to be a star. Luckily some Dutch entrepreneurs stole me from Clusius and spread my seeds all over the Netherlands.

A: You were a big deal in the Netherlands, right?

T: If by a big deal you mean that 80% of the world’s tulips are grown in the Netherlands, or that in the 1630s some tulip bulbs cost as much as a townhouse, then yes, I was a big deal. Still am.

A: I’ve heard about this, it was called Tulip Mania, right? Speculation drove tulip prices through the roof, and the price of bulbs doubled almost weekly before the market crashed in 1637. Why were people willing to pay so much? You are just a flower, after all.

T: How dare you! I am THE flower. Back then I wasn’t just any flower: I was a status symbol. At the time the Netherlands was one of the world’s largest colonial powers, and the rich and newly-rich merchants had money to spend. I was a rare exotic bloom that happened to fit the bill. Ironically, the mosaic virus also helped my rise to fame.

A: Excuse me, did you say virus? Don’t viruses make you sick?

T: Yes, technically they do. But these ones also make pretty patterns all over our petals.

A: How can a virus do that?

T: My flowers are naturally a solid colour, but some viruses strip away the pigment in our petals to reveal the yellow or white underneath. This means that one year I’d be red, and the next I’d be striped like a circus tent! The Dutch had no idea what was happening, but they loved the result.

A: When did they figure out it was a virus?

T: The mosaic virus was the second oldest viral disease to be described in plants, and there are woodcuts from 1576 prove it. During Tulip Mania striped tulips were worth even more because they were so rare. Driven by money, breeders tried using alchemy, paint or pigeon poop to achieve the stripes, but obviously nothing worked. You can’t beat nature for beautiful accidents. It was only in 1920 that scientists found out it was caused by a virus.

A: Does the virus eventually kill you?

T: No, but it does make us grow short and stubby. It also makes it harder for us to reproduce.

A: How do you catch a mosaic virus?

T: Juice-to-juice contact. Aphids like to suck up our sap. If an aphid that bit an infected plant then bites me, it’s game over for my beautiful ruby red petals. Next time I pop up out of the ground, I’ll have stripes.

A: Are stripy tulips still as popular with gardeners today?

T: Yes, but today’s stripy tulips are healthy virus-free hybrids bred to look like the mosaic-infected kind. Today if a tulip bed has a mosaic virus, gardeners destroy them pretty fast. Otherwise the virus will just spread to other beds. It can even spread to related species like lilies. And nobody likes streaked lilies.

A: Yikes! I didn’t realize that the flower industry was so cut-throat.

T: You better believe it, doll-face. That virus is the Devil in disguise. Ironically, I’m more popular worldwide than I ever was during the Dutch tulip craze. Not to mention way more affordable.

A: Alright, thanks for sharing your story with us.

T: My pleasure. Now I’m off to heartbreak hotel to sleep through the winter and rehearse for next year. See you there!

References

Tulipomania: Novelist Michael Upchurch explains how a Turkish blossom enflamed the landscape: [Final Edition]Upchurch, Michael. The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 20 May 2001: C6.

‘Tulip fire’ hits Ottawa OTTAWA (CP)
The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 28 May 1981: N.14.

Ottawa tulip winter kill feared
The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 22 Mar 1980: P.11.

The elegant tulip symbolizes Ottawa in spring.
Cornish, Douglas. The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 09 May 2000: B4.

Tulips: Dutch find fortunes in flowers: [Final Edition]
The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 13 Dec 1988: B16.

Tulip: the flower of manias: From its early days in Europe, it has sparked wild adulation and excesses: [FINAL Edition]Robin, Laura. The Gazette [Montreal, Que] 15 May 1997: D.9.

http://wildthings.sarahzielinski.com/blog/theres-a-lot-of-dna-in-tulips/
http://www.hortmag.com/archive/wild_tulips
http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/pdf_pubs/634.pdf
http://www.tulipsinthewild.com/?utm_source=gnb&utm_medium=packet&utm_content=gnbindex&utm_campaign=clb14
http://online.sfsu.edu/bholzman/courses/Spring99Projects/tulips.htm
https://www.lib.umn.edu/bell/tradeproducts/tulips
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/608647/tulip
http://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/cuttulip.html
http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/pdf_pubs/634.pdf

 

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About Amelia

I am a recent biology graduate and current journalism student exploring career opportunities in science communications.

One response to “Tip Top Tulips: The King is in the house

  1. Very funny interview, Amelia. Though, I am a bit worried about you, having conversations with plants and all!

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