Friday, April 13, 2018

Variegated Tulips: Beauty From a Virus By Olivia Tracy

Variegated Tulip (Tulipa), likely “Tulip Yellow Spring Green.” Photo courtesy of Olivia Tracy.

Have you ever seen tulips like these, tulips that look like they’ve been ‘painted’ with multiple colors? Many people love the look of these variegated tulips, and they’ve been popular since the 1600s, when Holland went mad for variegated tulip varieties and tulip speculation (and tulip prices) skyrocketed.1 While we don’t have this mania today, we can still buy varieties like Rembrandt, Princess Irene, Kaufmanniana and many others that promise beautifully variegated tulips. 

When a tulip has stripes of a different color, the tulip color is said to be “broken.” Why, however, do these tulips “break” their color? Today, many of these variegated tulips are bred for these streaks, and maintain consistent coloring across batches. However, in the 1600s when these variegated tulips first came into popularity, the “breaks” in coloring were, in fact, caused by a virus in the bulb called tulip break virus, which was carried by aphids.1 We can still find this disease in our own tulips—when a single tulip in a solidly-colored batch ‘breaks’ color, that’s often a sign of a virus such as tulip chlorotic blotch, tulip X, or tulip breaking virus.2 The best way to prevent the occurrence of these viruses is to control aphids, which carry the virus. Unfortunately, if you confirm tulip virus, it is best to simply destroy the tulip and bulb.3

So when you’re enjoying your tulips this year, keep an eye out for any stripes that aren’t where they should be. If you’re finding “breaks” in what should be solidly colored tulips, this might mean they have a virus. To confirm, you can bring a sample to the Jefferson County Plant Diagnostic Clinic, which is in the CSU extension office at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds.

If you don’t have tulips this year, but want to add them to your garden for next spring, mark your calendars for September (the best time to plant bulbs) and, when September comes, follow the guidelines provided in the CSU Fact-Sheet 7.410.4 

1The “Tulip” section in Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire inspired this article and provided context and details about this trend; information about the history of tulips and the tulip break virus is also very concisely articulated by Dr. Janna Beckerman in “Tulip Break Virus,” Plant and Pest Diagnostic Laboratory, Purdue University  

2 “Tulip Flower Break Virus or Variegated Variety?” Home, Yard and Garden Pest Newsletter, University of Illinois Extension 

3 Beckerman, Janna. “Tulip Break Virus.”  Plant and Pest Diagnostic Laboratory, Purdue University. 

4 “Fall-Planted Bulbs and Corms 7.410.” CSU Extension, Colorado State University.