David Robson: Virus-infected bulbs created today's tulips

David Robson

Fortunes were made and lost. Peasants could become wealthy overnight. The rich could find themselves out in the street in the blink of an eye. Butchers could stand beside street sweepers, bankers, generals and kings.

And like all good bubbles, it finally burst.

Interestingly, this bubble burst in the early 1630s. It wasn’t Wall Street investors playing with the housing market; it was the Dutch speculating on tulip bulbs.

Of course, 400 years creates lots of stories that may or may not be true. The widespread collapse may not have affected an entire population. Still, it’s an interesting story on a chilly autumn evening.

If you look at the lowly tulip bulb at the garden center, it’s hard to fathom that someone would pay more than a dollar for it. Today, you can probably scour stores and find a sack of 50 tulip bulbs selling for about $15, making each bulb slightly more than 30 cents each.

Yet, nearly 400 years ago, people were advertising the equivalent of what would be $20,000 today for a single bulb –– a single bulb! What were the Dutch people thinking?

Tulips are notoriously fickle plants that make gardeners swoon in the early spring when they start blooming. Their rich, intense colors provide relief from winter’s doldrums.

When the flowers were introduced from Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey, European gardeners went wild. Here was a flower that did surprisingly well in gardens (no place more than in Holland, where the bulbs admirably survived the tough winter conditions).

While initially planted mainly by the wealthy, tulips caught on with the average Hans and soon were flourishing in gardens everywhere. The typical tulips were the solid reds, purples, whites and yellows that are still popular today. But bicolor flowers of red-yellow, red-white and purple-white gained in popularity.

And then the viruses hit.

For many plants, viruses are bad with a capital B. Infected plants tend to be dwarves, distorted, weak or have poor flowering or fruiting. Plants with viruses are looked on as the Elephant Man of the yard.

Left unattended, plants infected with a virus can affect similar plants, perpetuating the problem throughout the garden. Because there is no cure for plant viruses, one should remove and discard the infected plants — don’t save them for composting.

Insects transmit most viruses, but tools and hands can also spread viruses. Normally, seeds are not infected. It’s impossible to predict how viruses will affect plants. That’s where tulips initially went wild.

In tulips, viruses cause what’s called “breaking.” Virus breaking did some interesting and wonderful things to tulips back in the 1630s: random streaks started appearing all over the petals, morphing the yellow, red, purple and white into patterns. The base of the petal could be a solid color bleeding into a lighter color, or even stripes. Three petals could be of one color while the other three could be of another.

The virus also caused some petals to have ruffled edges, instead of the typical smooth margins. Red and yellow flowers would have an intense flame appearance, as if the garden were ablaze. Because the tulip virus didn’t kill the plant ­­–– it only created an interesting blossom effect –– infected plants were pampered instead of pulled.

As most gardeners know, tulips grow by bulbs, not seeds. They do form seeds, but it takes five to 10 years for the seeds to mature to bulb-blooming size.

Plus, like most things that come from two parents, you can’t quite predict what the offspring will look like. That’s why bulbs are great cloning tools for gardeners — you know what you will be getting. Apricot Beauty tulips produce Apricot Beauty babies. A King Alfred daffodil bulb will produce King Alfred offspring.

The virus would be stored in the bulb and transmitted to the bulblets that form from the main bulb. So, theoretically, if you have a virus-induced mutation, the offsets of the main bulb will also be infected.

Depending on which story you believe, the virus produced effects that the Dutch gambled on in the end. Eventually, things fell apart like a house of cards. These days, we still have interesting tulips that make us think of the supposedly high-priced ones from centuries ago.

Parrot tulips are often marked with multi-colored petals with stripes of various colors, or that are ruffled and flared. Estella Rijnveld tulips carry on a name that implies a Dutch heritage with red and white petals that often elicit comments of jealousy from garden visitors. There’s even a category of Fringed tulips that look as though the petal margins lost a run-in with a pair of pinking shears.

These days, most color streaking in tulips is because of plant breeding, not viruses, though you may find one tulip that looks like something is causing it to mutate. Just don’t pin your hopes on moving to Monte Carlo with the flower.

David Robson is a horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension.

For more gardening information or for your local extension unit office, go to The Sangamon-Menard Unit Sangamon County office can be reached at 782-4617.