Love Tulips? Subscribe to receive our free short-film on the History of the Tulip!

What Defines The 'Perfect' Tulip?

Istanbul Tulip Dagger shaped Needle pointed Tulip Ottoman Empire Treasured Perfect Amsterdam Tulip MuseumSemper Augustus Leyster Tulip Catalog Tulip ManiaEnglish Florists' Tulip Alexandrina

This week's #TulipFact: It is every grower's dream to one day find a 'Perfect Tulip' in their patch. But what exactly is 'perfect'? As it turns out, definitions have existed over the years, unique to each culture and time period!

The story begins in the Middle East with the first Tulip Fanatics - the Ottomans. In love with the flower, Sultans threw lavish garden parties, and poets mused of the Tulip's beauty and meaning. Even the Sultan's champion warrior carried a shield adorned with Tulip designs.

It is no surprise, then, that many turned their efforts to breeding, with one 17th century Imam selecting what he believed to be the 202 "finest breeders of the age". These breeders, reflecting the preferences of the sultans and their own beliefs, laid out precise standards for the perfect Turkish Tulip:

  • The stem must be tall and thin.
  • The flower must be narrowly contoured (the petals could not droop out wide).
  • The petals themselves must be dagger-shaped -wide near the base and thin towards the top.
  • The texture had to be smooth to the touch while stiff enough to hold upright.
  • Rarest of all, the petals had to stretch into long, needle-like tips.

Tulips with such an appearance are extremely uncommon today, but one such example is Tulipa Acuminata (pictured below):

Tulip Acuminata Tulip Tulips in the wild eric breed

And so the Ottomans had their standards and worked hard to meet them. But how did their views compare with Western Europe at the time? It probably won't shock you to learn that they were, in fact, very different.

The Dutch growers of the 17th century spurned the long, needle-like appearance so loved by the Ottomans. Instead, they favored a tight, rounded, cup-shaped flower - one that looked good in bunches. The differences would not end here - while the Ottomans sought a single, consistent color, the Dutch sought the opposite. Specifically, they sought the multi-color patterns of Broken Tulips.

Broken Tulips were (and are) Tulips infected by the Mosaic or 'Tulip Breaking' Virus. While this virus typically attacks and weakens the bulb, it also has an incredible side effect: The petals of infected Tulips see their color 'break', leaving bold, flared streaks of color on a white or yellow base. 

For the Dutch growers of the 17th century, perhaps no Tulip was considered more 'Perfect' than the famed Semper Augustus (pictured below). Renowned for being the most expensive Tulip ever sold, it is always on the list when someone writes about the best flowers in history:

Semper Augustus Catalog Tulip Amsterdam Tulip Museum

In the centuries that followed, the definition of 'perfect' would continue to evolve. Seemingly every new group of breeders would apply their own standards, such as the English Florists who also loved Broken Tulips, but preferred a wider, more open display of the petals like a 'half a hollow ball', and a base color of clean white or yellow with a darker color overlaid on top. 

Perhaps most interesting is what has now gone out of style. In the modern Tulip industry, Broken Tulips have fallen from favor, and apart from a few rare cases are actually illegal in the Netherlands (you can read more about that here). Dutch growers today see them not for their beauty but as a nuisance or threat that could infect other plants.  

So amidst all of this, what is the present-day definition for the perfect Tulip?

No, there is not. Sure, things like symmetry and general health will always be considered good, but like all forms of art and beauty - whether or not a Tulip is 'perfect' rests in the eye of the beholder. One person may love pointed petals, another may prefer them smooth. One may love a solid pink, another flared purple and white.

There is something inherently beautiful and real in the fact that there is no set answer - your perfect Tulip simply comes down to you :). 

Image Sources: OldTulips.org (English Florists' Tulip), TulipsintheWild.com (Tulipa Acuminata)


For more facts and articles like this, subscribe to our email list below or follow us on social media: