Broken Tulips: How a Virus Gave the World’s Most Prized Flower Its Beauty

A pivotal intersection between art and science.

Broken Tulips: How a Virus Gave the World’s Most Prized Flower Its Beauty

In 1634, Rembrandt painted his wife, Saskia, as Flora — the Roman goddess of flowers and spring. One large bloom droops over her left ear from the wreath crowning her head, dwarfing the other blossoms in scale and splendor — a single tulip, its silken petals aflame with stripes of red and white.

They are no more. Rembrandts are their nearest relatives. In the painter’s day, these living canvases of expressionist color transfixed the human imagination across cultures, casting a singular enchantment with their sudden and mysterious eruptions of contrasting color. Both lay and professional gardeners in Holland, France, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire planted hundreds of thousands of tulip bulb bulbs, in hopes that they would flower in this mysterious pattern. On those rare and unbidden occasions when it happened, the tulip was said to “break.”

Henriette-Antoinette Vincent (1820): Broken tulip Available as a print or as a face-mask and stationery cards.

To force tulips to fall, gardeners used extraordinary measures. The methods are still insensible to the newly developed scientific method. For example, they would place white tulips on the ground, and then cover the soil with powdered pigments. This was to ensure that the pigment would be absorbed by the bulb, which would eventually imprint the blossom-to-be.

Because the history of our species is the history of humans longing for control of their fortunes and other humans exploiting this longing in the absence of knowledge and critical thought — from religions imbuing with mystical meaning yet-unexplained astronomical phenomena like comets and eclipses, to internet scammers — a new trade of charlatans emerged, promising surefire recipes (some involving pigeon droppings, others powdered plaster from the walls of old houses) to make the tulips break.

Because no one has the information-point nodes that we refer to as knowledge, what really was at play is something nobody knew. The real play here was an extraordinary intersection of science and cultural, which Michael Pollan tells in The Botany of Desire (public librarian). He wrote:

We have lost one of the most important elements of the beauty and charm of the tulip, which intoxicated the Turks, French, Dutch, and English. Because it could spontaneously and brilliantly explode with color, the tulip was considered a magical flower. In a planting of a hundred tulips, one of them might be so possessed, opening to reveal the white or yellow ground of its petals painted, as if by the finest brush and steadiest hand, with intricate feathers or flames of a vividly contrasting hue… If a tulip broke in a particularly striking manner — if the flames of the applied color reached clear to the petal’s lip, say, and its pigment was brilliant and pure and its pattern symmetrical — the owner of that bulb had won the lottery. The offsets from that bulb would be able to inherit the pattern and colors and thus command an incredible price. Prices for broken tulips were higher due to the fact that they produced smaller offsets of ordinary tulips.

The discovery of non-bacterial submicroscopic pathogens took place in a time when the microscope was still an novelty and was only available to the very few. EcologyIt was almost two centuries since Rembrandt’s invention. What Rembrandt and his fellow bulb-buyers didn’t realize was that the breaking of the flower was caused by a virus from another species. The virus, which was found to be a fatal virus, was able to destroy the spell of beauty they had created on this world. Pollan discusses the biomechanics that underlie beauty.

The color of a tulip actually consists of two pigments working in concert — a base color that is always yellow or white and a second, laid-on color called an anthocyanin; the mix of these two hues determines the unitary color we see. Partially and irregularly, the virus suppresses the anthocyanin to allow a small amount of the underlying colors to shine through. It wasn’t until the 1920s, after the invention of the electron microscope, that scientists discovered the virus was being spread from tulip to tulip by Myzus persicaeThe peach potato aphid. In seventeenth-century gardens, peach trees were common.

Dutch cultivators began to rid their fields of the virus in the 1920s. They considered their tulips to be commodities, rather than ornaments. When color breaks did happen, they were quickly removed and an unusual manifestation of natural beauty lost its hold on the human heart.

Every time I think of the story of the broken tulip, I think of Richard Feynman’s Ode to a Flower.

Couple this fragment of Pollan’s altogether enchanting The Botany of Desire with Emily Dickinson and the nonbinary botany of flowers, then revisit Sylvia Plath’s almost unbearably beautiful poem “Tulips.”

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