Breaking Bad or Good? The conflicted history of Tulip Breaking Virus (TBV)

Too rarely do I find a flower designer's site that looks back to history whilst also following trends. Moa Carlsson, of London's Carlsson and Co., caught my attention for this reason. I asked her if I could share her wonderful post on tulips below because I wish I had written it myself. Thank you Moa!

Every spring they appear out of nowhere and seduce the hell out of us. Streaked tulips have fascinated me for a long time. Approaching from an oblique angle they catch me off guard, and like a walking onion I fall head over heels. Never fails. But swirling in tulipomaniac romance a question always nags me: is their unusual variegation legitimate or something that we, as responsible florists, should worry about? It seems not. 

In short, the streaks of different colours in tulips are caused by a virus. Historically, at least. 

Before we go into the intriguing scientific aspects of the virus, and how it inflected cultural history, I should say that the streaked tulip varieties commercially available today are products of stable genetic mutation developed to hypochondriacally imitate the appearance of infected blooms. They are not caused by viral-infection. In other words, modern English florists’ tulips, or what I sloppily used to refer to as such, are safe. So there!

Now back to the drama. In 1576, Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius was the first to observe the phenomenon today known as the Tulip Breaking Virus (TBV). After 9 years of systematic studies, in 1585, he asserted that variegated tulips seem to, despite their striking blooms, be in the process of slow degeneration. In poetic scientific lingo, typical of the time, he notes that the degeneration of tulips happen as if “only to delight its master’s eyes with this variety of colours before dying, as if to bid him a last farewell”. Hand me a handkerchief. 

Little did he know that the near invisible force that caused the phenomena to spring up elsewhere, were the creatures we love to hate: aphids.

However, despite Clusius findings, the novelty of the variegated flowers — typically occurring in two-tone combinations of red, yellow, purple, and white —  induced a craze in seventeenth century Holland.  The economic and social disorder that erupted, which generated significant cultural ramifications, is today referred to as “tulipomania.” If you have not yet read Mike Dash’s beautiful book on the topic, I suggest that you immediately take a week off and lock the door.

Johannes Bosschaert, Still Life with Tulips (c. 1630)

Johannes Bosschaert, Still Life with Tulips (c. 1630)

Rumors of the unusual flowers spread quickly. Particularly in the 1630s, blooms exhibiting the breaking patterns became highly prized possessions for which tradesmen commanded sky-high prices. Science, however, could hardly keep up with the escalating demand from bewitched horticulturists, noblemen, and tavern owners. Quickly it was found that the effect was unpredictable and that bulbs, which had once produced flowers with the desired pattern,  did not repeat reliably in future years.

As a result of the soaring bulb prices and the rapidly withering flowers, artists of the seventeenth century were commissioned to preserve the beauty of the broken tulips in paintings. It is hard to believe, but for many, the eternal blooms captured in oil (the paintings) were more affordable than the bulbs from which they grew. According to a record from 1636 (Lesnaw and Gahbrial 2000), the price of the broken tulip ‘Semper Agustus’ was equivalent to the value of:

Eight fat pigs
Four fat oxen
Twelve fat sheep
Twenty-four tons of wheat
Forty-eight tons of rye
Two hogsheads of wine
Four barrels of eight-guilder beer
Two tons of butter
A thousand pounds of cheese
A silver drinking cup
A pack of clothes
A bed with mattress and bedding
A ship

As such, the virus is to thank, or blame, for a new movement of flower painting in which many of the most renowned Baroque painters took part, including Jan van den HeckePhilips de Marlier, and Andries Daniels.

Andries Daniels and Frans Francken the Younger, Vase with Tulips (c. 1620-1625)

Andries Daniels and Frans Francken the Younger, Vase with Tulips (c. 1620-1625)

Tulipomania peaked in 1637 when sellers who had mastered techniques of propagation, notably by grafting, flooded the market with an abundance of bulbs, which caused the prices to plummet. Panic erupted. Many who had contractually agreed to pay extortionate sums refused to pay, as the product they were to gain in return was suddenly worthless. As such, the tulip crash had significant and widespread financial consequences that caused the country to fall into depression. Flower power, to say the least.

To conclude this epistle, I may add that although bulbs carrying TBV are not available in trade, members of the Wakefield & North of England Tulip Society still grow, and show, broken tulips. One of the oldest known cultivars of so called English Florists’ Tulips still cultivated is ‘Habit de Noce’, which dates back to the 1790s.

Rory McEwen, Habit de Noce (1977)

Rory McEwen, Habit de Noce (1977)

In the words of botanist Judith A. Lesnaw and plant pathologist Said A. Ghabrial, on whose research this post is based: “The reader is cautioned that tulipomania, like tulip breaking, is still contagious”. 

Further reading:

Judith A. Lesnaw and Said A. Ghabrial, “Tulip Breaking: Past, Present, and Future” (2000)

The Wakefield & North of England Tulip Society, Flames and Feathers (2012)

Mike Dash, Tulipomania : The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused (2001)