Stalking the Wild Tulip

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on April 20, 2011

Where did tulips originate? ...Holland? The Dutch are certainly known for their tulips, but no. ...Turkey? That’s closer.

2011-04-16/LarryR/94f302Would you believe Kazakhstan?

As I was outside working in our spring flower beds recently, I got to wondering where this gardening icon originated.  In what part of the world did tulips first grow as a wild flower?  I knew the answer was not The Netherlands.  Perhaps Turkey, I thought, remembering something I had once read.  I was astounded when I discovered that the little-known country of Kazakhstan is believed to be its origin—astounded all the more, because I had recently written an article on the origin of the apple, and it, too, originated in Kazakhstan!

2011-04-19/LarryR/994abc                                                  ©  Indiana University

The Republic of Kazakhstan is a Central Asian country bordered, clockwise from the north, by Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.  It also includes a significant portion of the Caspian Sea shoreline (see map and please note that images in this article can be enlarged by clicking on them).  Larger in size than all of Europe and half the size of the U.S., its terrain is quite variable, including steppes, forests, canyons, hills, deserts, and snow-capped mountains. That’s quite a diversity of habitats for plants to grow and evolve in.  As you look at the species tulip photos below, note the variety of conditions in which they thrive.  Some appear to grow in very sandy soil, some in rocky soil, and some among lush vegetation.

Wild Tulips of Kazakhstan

 2011-04-19/LarryR/278652           A meadow of Tulipa kolpokovskiana


                 A meadow of mixed species

2011-04-16/LarryR/269f8b                                 T. zanaidee


    T. tetraphylla (see also thumbnail photo above)


                              T. ostrovskiana


            T. ostrovskiana (note color variation)


                                  T. lemana


                                  T. greigii


                               T. buhseana


                               T. behmiana


                             T. heterophylla


                               T. schrenkii


                           T. kaufmanniana

A whopping 36 different wild tulip species inhabit Kazakhstan.  Kazakhs are fond of pointing out that there is not a single region of the country without at least one species of native tulip.  To date, not enough research has been done on the genes in these tulips to pinpoint their origin conclusively.  But scientists can take an educated guess.  It turns out that regions of the world that have large areas of a wild species, with plenty of genetic variation within it, tend to be areas of origin.

So how did Kazakh tulips make it all the way to The Netherlands and from there to the U.S.?

The Silk Road

The Silk Road is a collection of routes that gets its name from the Chinese silk trade and that began during the Han Dynasty in 206 BC.  It lasted for more than 2,000 years.  Stretching 4,000 miles, the Road was a key route for cultural, commercial, and technological interchange among traders, merchants, religious travelers, soldiers, and nomads.  They came from China, Central Asia, Tibet, and the Mediterranean countries.  Goods transported by these travelers included silk, satin, other fine fabrics, hemp, perfumes, spices, medicines, jewels, glassware, and—of primary interest to the topic at hand—tulip bulbs.  Although the Road spanned a great distance, very few travelers actually traversed it from one end to the other.  Goods were transported by agents on sections of the route and traded in lively markets in key towns along the way.

Turkish Tulips  

It was via the Silk Road through Kazakhstan (see map at the end of this article) that the tulip found its way to Turkey.  The early botanists of the great Turkish Empire were fascinated by the tulips growing in what is now Kazakhstan and began cultivating them as early as 1,000 AD.  During the glory days of the Empire, Sultans celebrated the tulip as an important sign of their wealth and power.  At that time there were strict laws governing the cultivation and sale of tulips.  Buying and selling of tulips outside the capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul) was strictly forbidden.  Exile was the punishment for those caught doing so.  A common complaint of the time was that tulips were more highly valued than a human life.

In the early 1700's the Turks began a tradition that was most likely the genesis of tulip festivals, which are still popular today, not only in The Netherlands, but in other countries as well, including the United States.  Those first festivals were held at night during a full moon and included hundreds of delicately adorned vases filled with the most beautiful tulips in the land at that time.  Lanterns illuminated the scene, while caged canaries and nightingales sang in the background.  Given this early veneration, it’s quite fitting that  the tulip is still the national flower of Turkey today.

A Tulip Tale

As popular as tulips are, it’s no surprise that a number of legends involving the tulip have sprung up through the ages.  One of the most popular was the one told here by Audrey Nolte Painter (for audio version click here):

Ali, a young trader in [16th Century] Constantinople, Turkey, was very miserable. His father had ordered him to go to China to buy silk. The Silk Route was dangerous. Thieves waited for merchants with valuable goods to pass, and robbed them. Who wanted to travel more than 6000 km (one way) to buy or trade goods? It was easier to wait for them and steal. This was not why Ali was sad. He was in love and did not want to go to China.

“Bring me something magnificent!” the girl cried when he left.

“I will bring you something no one in this city has ever seen!” he promised.

On the way back from China, the young man worried. He had found some nice perfumes, strange concoctions of medicines and a new colour of silk, but nothing that had not been seen in Constantinople. He worried.

In the Tian Shan mountains (of the country we call Kazakhstan today), he became desperate. He could not sleep. The moon was full and it was the beginning of spring. He sat on a cliff and stared at a lake on which the moon made a long line of light. His love would be disappointed. Her friends were all marrying rich men and he was merely a merchant. Would she pick someone else, like the ugly older widower who promised her a palace?

Ali fell asleep in the grass. At daybreak he woke. There were red flowers everywhere. He picked a flower and uprooted the entire plant. It had a strange thick round root. He pulled out a few more and hid them in his backpack.

He had picked the first tulips. In Kazakhstan.

In Constantinople, the red flowers were more popular than anything ever brought back. Ali married the love of his life and they moved to the countryside of Turkey where he became a rich tulip farmer. 

And, of course, they lived happily ever after.

The Tulip Debuts in Europe  

Once tulips had reached the edge of western culture in Constantinople, it was only a matter of time before they spread across the entire European Continent.  It’s not quite clear who actually was the first person to introduce Europe to the tulip. 

There are two contenders:  Carolus Clusius and Oghier Ghislain de Busbecq.  The latter was an ambassador for Ferdinand I of Germany to Suleyman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire.  In a letter de Busbecq wrote from Germany, dated March 1558, he remarked that he saw "an abundance of flowers everywhere…[including] those in Turkish called Lale [“tulip”], much to our astonishment…” (Blunt, Wilfrid. Tulipomania. p. 7).

A claim considered somewhat more credible is that Carolus Clusius, a famous biologist from Vienna, was the introducer.  He assumed the directorship of the famous Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, the oldest botanical garden in Europe, sometime in the 1590s.  A plant researcher at the University of Leiden as well, he received some tulip bulbs from none other than his friend, Oghier Ghislain de Busbecq.  However, those were probably not the first tulips Clusius had grown.  Before coming to Leiden, he was on the staff at the  Imperial Botanical Gardens of Vienna in 1573 and later held the position of prefect at the Royal Medicinal Gardens in Prague.  It is said that some now unknown person had sent him tulip seeds, which he parlayed into a sizeable collection of tulip plants.  This is most likely the event that marked the arrival of the tulip in Europe.

The tulip didn’t really come into prominence until after Clusius moved to Leiden from Prague in 1593.  He took with him his entire collection of tulips and planted them in the Hortus Botanicus.  Although he was willing to allow the public to view the collection, he was determined to keep it to himself, neither selling nor giving away a single bulb, despite very generous offers.  So keen was the interest in these tulips that they started disappearing from the Hortus beds and from Clusius’ private collection.  From 1596 to 1598, Clusius suffered a multitude of thefts from his tulip beds, with over a hundred bulbs stolen in a single raid.  He is said to have been so disgusted by the thievery that he got rid of all his tulips and never planted another bulb.

Tulipomania (1634-37)  

Now that the tulips had been “liberated,” they spread across The Netherlands like wildfire.  Growing them at first became a hobby of the rich, as prices for the precious bulbs escalated.  Tulips in the garden soon became a symbol of wealth and prosperity.  So potent a symbol had they become, that some aristocrats actually installed mirrors in their tulip gardens to give the impression that they had more tulips than were actually planted!

By 1630, it was becoming obvious that tulips could be raised commercially as prices continued to escalate.  With more bulbs available, more and more people got caught up in the trade.  Soon small groups of speculators were meeting at local inns to buy and sell tulip bulbs.  The bulbs were usually sold by weight, so most entrepreneurs were speculating on the future weight of bulbs after harvest.

From 1634 to 1637 bulb prices shot ever higher as “tulip fever” spread through the Dutch populace.  Bulbs purchased for a few guilders increased in worth to a hundred guilders just a few months later and changed hands several times before they even bloomed for the first time.  At the peak of the mania, a single bulb sold for a price equivalent to 15 years' wages for the average bricklayer or the purchase of a house in the upper class neighborhoods of Amsterdam!

Many efforts were made to defuse the rampant speculation.  Preachers railed against it and the government even tried to get a law passed that would make such speculation illegal.  In the end, the bubble burst when, in 1637, speculators could no longer get the prices they asked for.  People suddenly came to their senses and simply stopped buying.  Many involved in the trade lost everything and never wanted to see another tulip bulb.  There were others, however, who continued to treasure the beautiful blossoms, the rarest of which could still command a high price.  Even in the 1640s, the rare and coveted ‘Semper Agustus’ tulip commonly sold for 1,200 guilders, about three times the average yearly wage in The Netherlands at the time.

When did Tulips Arrive in the U.S.?

A specific date for the arrival of tulips in this country is not available, but it is generally assumed that the first tulips in the United States were grown near Spring Pond at the 500-acre Fay Estate in Lynn/Salem, Massachusetts.  Richard Sullivan Fay, one of the wealthiest men in the area, imported many plants and trees from all parts of the world for his gardens from 1847 to 1865.  His tulips are thought to be the first ones to reach our shores.

Like the Turks and the Europeans before them, U.S. gardeners value the tulip highly as one of the most beautiful of all spring flowers.  A testimony to their popularity are the tulip festivals held in various cities throughout the country.  These include Albany, New York; Holland, Michigan; Lehi, Utah; Orange City, Iowa; Pella, Iowa; Mount Vernon, Washington, D.C.; and Woodburn, Oregon.

If you’re a gardener and grow tulips, the next time you plant or transplant a tulip bulb, take a moment, as I intend to do, to remember the amazing history of this bulb and of its origin in that far-away country of Kazakhstan. 

                                                              © OrexCA  
 A portion of the Silk Road runs through the heart of Kazakhstan.










Thanks to Moldir Kulbalayeva of Silk Road Adventures in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for her prompt and positive response to my request to use the tulip photos of Alexander Petrov, Director, Silk Road Adventures



Related articles:
Constantinople, Kazakhstan, Ottoman Empire, Silk Road, Silk Route, The Netherlands, tulip mania, tulipomania, tulips, Turkish Empire

About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at

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