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A new kind of Tulipomania is alive and well at the Landscape Arboretum

Karl Foord, UMN Extension Educator.

If you have the opportunity and the interest, check out the tulip displays at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in the near future while they are still at peak; for lack of a word "spectacular" (Exhibit # 1).

I was reading Michael Pollan's book, "The Botany of Desire" and came upon the chapter on tulips and his description of 'tulipmania'. You may remember the history of this period but it is worth reviewing.

In Holland a great furor about tulips whose petals were colored with dramatic streaks and stripes began in 1593. It reached a high point in 1637 when a tulip bulb of the variety 'Semper Augustus' sold for 10,000 florins (exhibit # 2). At this time such a sum of money would have purchased a house, including gardens and coach house, in a very desirable location near the canal in central Amsterdam. This was also the year that the bottom fell out of the tulip bulb market and many speculators were bankrupted. During this time it was often cheaper to purchase a painting of tulips than it was to buy the bulbs themselves. To this end people often contracted painters to feature tulips in their still life paintings (Exhibits #'s 3 & 4).

These striking tulips were named after the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt (1606 - 1669) who lived and worked in Amsterdam at the time. Interestingly enough, the tulips dramatically variegated petal colors were found to be due a color disruption caused by a virus, ultimately named the tulip breaking virus (TBV). Although beautiful, the plant's vigor and flower quality decline rapidly after infection with the virus, and for this reason the original Rembrandt Tulips are no longer sold commercially. However, there are quite a few modern, virus-free, Rembrandt "look-alike" tulips available (Exhibit # 1).

On May 10th I was photographing some of the tulips outside the Landscape Arboretum's Oswald Visitor Center. Having been primed by "The Botany of Desire" I noticed some interesting looking tulips in the bed containing the cultivar 'Anne Schilder' which has uniformly orange petals (Exhibit # 5). Several individuals appeared to have variegated petals reminiscent of TBV (Exhibits # 6 & 7). This would need to be confirmed by a virus identification test (ELISA) which could not be accomplished prior to publication. But whether the colors in this tulip are due to the virus or a genetic factor they are still beautiful and fascinating. Looking at this tulip gives one the feeling of being connected to the tulipomania events in Holland in the 17th century.

Save the plane fare to Amsterdam and the jet lag, visit the Arboretum.

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