Suitcase and World: Spring Beauty. The Tulip.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Spring Beauty. The Tulip.

Wild Greig's Tulips in Kazakhstan (Photo from AGROBIO Project- Kazakhstan)

It's about 900 degrees below frigid outside my window. So cold. I'm already longing for spring. For that time when the tulips will bloom.  I only have a handful of tulips in my own garden.  Sadly, as much as I love them, I can't seem to get them to grow well in my garden.

On my travel bucket list is a springtime trip to the Netherlands to experience Keukenhof, the country's annual tulip festival. But before that happens, I hope I get to witness something that's perhaps even more special - seeing wild tulips blooming in their place of origin.  Surprisingly, even though we almost always associate tulips with Holland, the flower did not originate there. In fact, most Dutch tulips can trace their ancestry back to the mountains of Central Asia - more specifically to the mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan that border the Tian Shan Mountains.

Kaufmann Tulips blooming in Kazakhstan.  (Photo by Valerie Sudol)
It's estimated that about 75% of Dutch tulips were cultivated from two just varieties that claim the mountains of Kazakhstan as their birthplace - Greig's Tulip also known as the Queen Tulip and the Kaufmann Tulip.

In Kazakhstan, Greig's Tulips grow on drier, sunnier southern slopes. On rocky north facing slopes, the Kaufmann Tulip thrives. This species, with its smaller flower head, blossoms in white or yellow.

Tulips are in the genus Tulipa, in the Liliaceae family.  They are perennial plants classified as geophytes which plants with leaves that die back annually to the underground bulb, corm, tuber or rhizome. There are approximately 5000 different tulips listed in the International Register, published by the Royal General Bulb Growers Association in the Netherlands, with nearly all of them hybrid tulips. There is no exact number of species tulips, known as wild tulips or botanical tulips; it is estimated to be around 75 - 120 species, with new species still being discovered.  Several of the native species in Kazakhstan are considered to be endangered.

Closeup of Iznik tile inside Rüstem Paşa Cami, Istanbul.
The species tulip made its way out of Central Asia thanks to the efforts of the early botanists of the Ottoman Empire who first discovered, hybridized, and cultivated the Central Asian tulip. The Ottoman Sultans were tulip enthusiasts – and tulips were planted throughout Istanbul and the empire.  The flower is so popular it not only shows up as blooms in springtime garden flower beds but is also commonly used as a design element in ceramic tiles that decorate the walls and ceilings of Ottoman Palaces and mosques.  I don't think Ottoman design would be Ottoman design without the lovely tulip!  And, it's the shape of the iconic glass cup in which Turkish tea is served - you see it everywhere, everyday!

From Istanbul, the tulip was introduced to the Netherlands by Carolus Clusius, director of the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, the oldest botanical garden of Europe. He was hired by the University of Leiden to research medicinal plants.  While doing so he got some bulbs from a friend who had seen the beautiful flower growing in the palace gardens and sent a few to Clusius for his garden in Leiden.  The tulips became so popular that his garden was raided and bulbs stolen on a regular basis.

From a medicinal perspective, tulip flowers are known to be an excellent poultice for insect bites, bee stings, burns, and rashes on the skin, as it gave quick relief with a soothing effect.

Tulip Poultice (recipe from 

Warm up 2-4 flowers in hot water. Dip a towel in the hot water and drop the petals of the flowers into the towel. Roll the towel to crush the leaves. Apply the crushed petals to area where there is skin rash, bee sting or insect bite to find quick relief from the irritation. Hold the leaves on the place for 10 minutes using the hot towel.

Field of tulips in Holland.  How stunning!  (Photo from
Tulips were primarily used in Holland for medicinal purposes up until the 17th century.  Once they became a garden decoration, things changed.  As the Dutch Golden Age grew, so did love for this curvaceous and colorful flower. They became popular in paintings and festivals so  much so that they created the first economic bubble, known as "TulipMania".  Demand for the bulbs drove prices so high that eventually the market in them crashed. Then as is still true today, trade spread the tulip to beyond the boundaries of the Netherlands.  It has also continued to send lovers of the flower to the slopes of the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to see tulips blooming in their native land and for the very lucky few, to discover a new species or variety.

We'll be in Central Asia right in the middle of spring.  I'm guessing that we'll see the cut flowers being sold in the markets but I'm actually hoping we'll get to see the blooms in the wild.  Keeping my fingers crossed.