Lure of Broken Tulips is Irresistible Despite Drawbacks

The venerable Dutch botanical garden for old bulb cultivars, Hortus Bulborum.

They are broken, diseased and infectious. They should be held in quarantine. Known as rectified tulips, these afflicted beauties are the most unusual of all fall planted bulbs. First discovered during the 17 century tulip craze, these highly coveted varieties remained among the most rare and unpredictable of all.

What made a tulip break its color was at first a mystery. Something was marring the beautiful solid hue flowers, rendering them unpredictably striped and blotched. Yet everybody wanted one, so growers tried desperately to force the strange anomaly. They tried applications of pigeon droppings, old plaster and even dirty wastewater from the kitchen. Thinking color had some effect; they sprinkled powdered paint across the beds to no avail.

Not until the late 19th century was the mosaic virus finally deemed the cause of broken tulips. Further study showed a tiny insect vector, the aphid, transferred the anomaly from tulip to tulip.

The virus radically disturbs color in the flower. A solid-colored tulip infected will suddenly “break,” or rectify, into a bizarre blend of irregular flame or feather-like markings. These original broken varieties are the predecessors of contemporary Rembrandt tulips. Other effects of the virus can mottle the leaves and restrain vigor, causing irregular flower production in consecutive years.
Book cover of “Hortus Bulborum: Treasure
of Historical Bulbs.”

Book cover of “Hortus Bulborum: Treasure of Historical Bulbs.”

For this reason it is important to keep broken tulips well separated from other tulips in your garden. If grown in close proximity, aphids will likely infect the healthy plants with tulip mosaic virus.

But the lure of these broken tulips is irresistible despite drawbacks. Their exotic colors and the unpredictability of the viral patterns make them both a mystery and a surprise. Until recently they were difficult, if not impossible to buy. Thanks to the dedicated heirloom bulb aficionados at Old House Gardens-Heirloom Bulbs, you can buy the old broken tulip varieties today online or through their printed catalog. This bulb house obtains their broken stock from Hortus Bulborum, a virtual living museum of bulbs in Holland dedicated to preservation of old and disappearing tulips.

Tulips with this striped pattern are often called “Rembrandt” tulips in honor of the famous Dutch painter.

This catalog is the exclusive source for a most unique book that would be a thrilling gift for any bulb enthusiast. Published in Holland in bilingual text and uniquely designed, “Hortus Bulborum: Treasury of Historical Bulbs” is an outstanding excursion into bulb history in the Netherlands. Its story of this famous garden from which the broken tulips are provided to Old House Gardens is truly remarkable. The charts of old bulbs, their date of introduction and more is a valuable reference for anyone interested in heirloom flower bulbs. At you will find a broad range of broken tulips from the Hortus Bulborum propagators in Holland including:

‘Black and White’ _ Deep dark purple flames on high contrast creamy white petals.

‘Spaendonck’: Features red, lavender and rosy purple on cream.

‘Absalon’: The quintessential 18th century cultivar sepia and dark brown on gold.

‘Beauty of Bath’: Cheerful yellow, pink and lavender swirl on white.

Silver Standard: A striking red and white splashed tulip.

Broken tulips are rare and wonderful diversions from the all too common world of tulips. Maybe we like them because no two are exactly alike. This bizarre coloring that has for too long been lost to time is now back again to stir our imaginations. Because sometimes those less than perfect things prove to be the most rewarding.