History may be recreating itself in a small pot on my porch. I mean that part of history where a tulip grower, in a muddy patch somewhere in 17th century Netherlands, noticed that one of the tulips had come up funny. Had come up beautifully weird, in fact.
When my own tulip came up beautifully weird, I thought at first it was a sport. A sport is the botanical equivalent of a whim; the plant suddenly decides it wants to be, or look like, something else. Some plants have a family (or at least a genus) tradition of sporting; tulips are one of those.
But now I’ve had a few days to look at these tulips, I’m leaning toward the theory that some of the soil I’ve grown my few, precious broken tulips in got in this pot and infected ‘Annie Schilder’ with the virus that makes broken tulips into the intricate, variable gorgeous things that they are.
I’ve had several tulip sports in my garden. I’ve even had another Annie Schilder sport.
As you can see, the sport patterns are beautifully flamboyant, but they don’t have the refinement of the tulips in this pot, with their fine-brush patterns dividing the colors, spreading their way across the tepals, lacing into a new pattern each day.
(yeah, that’s a dog behind the tulip. Honi soit qui mal y pense.)
There aren’t a lot of true broken tulips on the market anymore, so people tend to confuse them with what are called Rembrandt tulips, tulips that also have streaked patterns. I like Rembrandt tulips, but their markings are nothing like true broken tulips. Once you’ve seen the two, you’ll understand what I mean.
‘Zurel’ tulip, a purple-and-white modern Rembrandt
‘Insulinde‘, a true broken tulip
It’s lucky for me that not all of my tulips turned into exotic beauties, so I can be sure of the identity of the original. In 17th century Netherlands, my remaining ‘plain’ Annie Schilder (Annie Schilder has some beautiful, subtle flushes of coloring, plus fragrance, so I wouldn’t really call it plain) – my plain Annie Schilder would have been called a breeder tulip. Breeder tulips were the solid-colored tulips whose coloring was so beautifully broken up when all went well.
In order to make that happen, the early broken tulip growers used strange concoctions of crushed bugs and other arcane ingredients, or cut tulips in half, bound the different halves together, or did all sorts of mysterious garden rituals to make their tulips break into the patterns that could make them prestigious millionaires.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that it became evident that the very ingredient that made the tulips so beautiful might also be the ingredient that made the tulips so likely to be sickly and die off. Broken tulips are created by a virus.
Their sickliness is the reason that they fell out of favor with commercial breeders. Broken tulips are chancy, delicate things, the Elizabeth Barrett Brownings of the tulip world. Once commercial growers knew that broken tulips carried a virus, a virus that could make their tulips spindly and weakly and unreliable, they phased them out. Gardeners were warned (and still are, though few of them now understand what the warnings are about) to plant broken tulips away from all others, lest they be infected.
But I – well, I never practiced garden hygiene. I’m a dirty gardener. In garden scicnce, I take Fleming for my model: his discovery of penicillin was based on an accidental contamination of a petrie dish. While I’ve planted my broken tulips in pots so that I can identify them and give them special attention, I’ve sometimes used the soil from those pots for other tulips, or even put a surreptitious pinch into a pot, just to see what would happen. Once I had grown my first true broken tulip, I was quite willing to sacrifice some of my plainer ones to this beauiful, inspiring virus.
It’s unfortunate that my record-keeping habits are also dirty, because I honestly can’t say that this pot of tulips is the fruit (or flowering) of my experiment. But I hope it is, and I look forward to further developments.