≡ Menu

Insulinde and the Degenerate Darwins


Insulinde is a broken tulip – a modern version of the tulips which brought many a person to financial ruin, and caused a breeding frenzy in the Netherlands which was probably the beginning of its tulip industry today.

The story of broken tulips could (and does) take up entire books. These were the ones which caused the famous Tulipomania, the huge run on tulip stock that had Hollanders trading horses and wagons, houses and breweries, for a single bulb. Poorer people bought shares of tulip futures in pubs that catered to the tulip stock market.

No one knew what made some of the tulips break. Since the broken ones were the most valuable and desirable, everyone tried whatever they could to get their tulips to break. Pigeon dung, secret spells, burying bulbs at midnight under a fruit tree.

Because they were so valuable, broken tulips acquired their own market-driven categories, separate from and superior to the others. There were Rosen, red or pink tulips with a white ground; Violetten, purple or lilac on white; and Bizarden: red, purple, or brown on yellow. In the nineteenth century, when a lot of botanical nomenclature was becoming more like the modern type we know, broken tulips still had their own peculiar classification; the only difference was that the former Violetten were now called Byblomen.

By the turn of the twentieth century, when Rev. Joseph Jacobs (a man after my own heart) was stuffing five hundred types of tulips in his rectory garden, people were beginning to suspect that breaking was caused by some sort of disease. Some breeders began trying to eliminate broken tulips from their stock, because broken tulips were smaller and more sickly and made the rest of the stock the same way. Writing in 1912, Jacob describes a letter from E. Gadeceau, a grower in Nantes. M. Gadeceau said he was more and more convinced that broken tulips were “like degenerate or sick Darwins, as it pleases you” (my translation).

He was right. Breaking is caused by a virus carried by the peach potato aphid, which thrives in warm situations surrounded by fruit trees. Turns out those people burying their bulbs at midnight under a fruit tree were right,  too.

While Jacob called broken tulips Rembrandts, he didn’t mean what catalogues mean today when they talk of Rembrandt tulips. What we call Rembrandts now are the thickly streaked ones like Marilyn, World Impresion, Prinses Irene, and others. While fetching, they don’t have anything like the intricacy that true broken tulips have. One of the names Jacob used for broken tulips reflects how they were valued: “rectified” tulips.

Jacob had yet another category to add to the list of broken tulips: Florist’s tulips, often called English tulips today. These tulips were a subset of broken tulips which had been taken over by English breeders, and given a very strict set of standards. (England was awash in plant-breeding societies in the 1800s. Many of the members were working people who bred amazing primroses, roses, tulips, and other plants in their time off . Many of these societies still exist, including the one for English tulips.) Not unnaturally, Jacob considers these the finest of all tulips, better than the Rembrandts, and when you look at pictures of them – well, you can make a case for it.

Insulinde, like most broken tulips, is smaller than the modern tulips we are used to . The first flowering of my bulb was a bloom about the size of a medium egg, and the stem was  less than a foot high (about a third of a meter).

Broken tulips aren’t cheap – the ones I’ve bought have been about $15 to $20 for one bulb – and they aren’t easy (they are diseased, after all). They are especially susceptible to what’s going around, and since they are small, I have found them to be some of the first candidates for burning up and drying out in a heat wave. You also need to plant them separately, so other tulips won’t get diseased. I put mine in small, deep pots. This way you can also be sure to get them out of the way of summer water, which is so damaging to tulips.

So if broken tulips are this much trouble, why bother with them? Because they are so amazing. When you look at one side of a broken tulip, the pattern is subtly different from the other side.



When Insulinde first bloomed, I had never seen anything in the plant world like the loops and whorls and dark and light patches and the faint hints of other colors that decorated this tulip and changed each day. I began to understand how people could become obsessed with such tulips. (Well, it wasn’t a very long step for me, was it?)

The following year, I had a smaller bloom from Insulinde, and then my tulip split into offsets and went blind. I have four small bulbs now, and this year I got another, smaller bloom, about the size of a walnut in its shell. It has the same amazing patterning of the first, with variations. I’m looking forward to seeing all of those little offsets grow out. And I can’t help thinking that it would be interesting to try putting them in with other tulips, to see if I can create my own degenerate Darwins.
(For more on antique tulips, visit the English tulips pictures link above, or check out Hortus Bulborum, the place Old House Gardens (where I got Insulinde) calls “the Noah’s Ark of bulbs.”)

{ 11 comments… add one }

  • Racquel May 13, 2009, 4:59 pm

    Who knew a diseased tulip could be so spectacular!

  • Pomona Belvedere May 13, 2009, 5:57 pm

    Odd, isn’ t it? Just another weird twist in the plant world…

  • Town Mouse May 13, 2009, 7:35 pm

    I was quite amazed to read about tulips in Botany of Desire. But really, don’t we all want the special and intricate. Yes, she is really beautiful, and I’ll be interested whether you can make your own.

  • lostlandscape(James) May 13, 2009, 8:15 pm

    Oh, that’s a striking one, isn’t it? Worth every penny. I wonder, though, if the world were full of broken tulips and you had the only solid colored one, would that be the gorgeous freak everyone would want?

  • tina May 14, 2009, 3:36 am

    Such a sad name for such a cool and neat tulip. It is really something else!

  • Cyd May 14, 2009, 8:16 am

    What an unusual flower. It’s really beautiful. I hope they come back for you. I visited Old House, they have an amazing inventory. I can see how tulipomania can become quite costly.

  • Pomona Belvedere May 14, 2009, 9:21 am

    TM, Botany of Desire’s a great book, I especially loved the story of apples.

    LL – I’m intrigued by the idea of a plain tulip being the oddity – human nature is so perverse, I probably would be oohing and ahing over that one.

    T – Glad to have introduced you!

    C – Yes, even though we’re not trading our houses and wagons for them, these old bulbs can still run up quite the bill. But great returns.

  • Frances May 14, 2009, 12:30 pm

    Just fascinating, Pomona! I didn’t even know there were still such things around, since they are diseased and all. Your offsets are exciting and promising. Will you give them extra food or any other special treatment? Keep them in pots? I am very interested, as you can tell. :-)

  • Pomona Belvedere May 14, 2009, 9:26 pm

    Frances, I am keeping the offsets in pots – partly because of the virus, partly because that way it’s easier to keep track of the small bulbs. I’m thinking I might break them up into two pots after they go dormant, since they’re getting larger – and they’re definitely getting prime doses of calcium (foliar and in the ground) as well as the foliar sprays the garden gets. I’m excited about them, too!

  • xRay May 17, 2010, 7:32 pm

    Thank you for the interesting article.

    How are your offsets looking this spring?

  • J. Denys Bourque August 5, 2013, 6:10 am


Leave a Comment