Broken Tulips: ‘That Last Gasp of Beauty Before Death’

That’s why Mr. Wall planted his broken tulips a mile from the unbroken ones — and why broken tulips are illegal in the Netherlands without special provision. Planting them can spread the virus to unbroken tulips or lilies, which are also susceptible to the virus.


A still life, by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621), that includes broken tulips.

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But there was a time when broken tulips weren’t illegal in the Netherlands; by contrast, they were highly prized. In 1576, Carolus Clusius, the botanist who essentially brought the tulips to Holland from their native home in Central Asia, was among the first to describe the “viral” flowers.

And by 1636, a rare tulip with petals of red and white stripes that flowed out like ribbons of peppermint candy became so popular that for the price of a single bulb, a person could purchase eight pigs, four oxen, 12 sheep (all fat), 24 tons of wheat, twice that much rye, two hogsheads of wine, four barrels of beer, 4,000 pounds of butter, a quarter that much cheese, a silver drinking cup, a pack of clothes, a bed (including mattress and bedding) and a ship, according to a pamphlet from the time. Its name was Semper Augustus.

This was the peak of Tulip Mania, the first modern economic bubble, which was fueled in part by an obsession with broken tulips. Today the Semper Augustus is gone, and a few broken varieties — Mr. Wall can name only three — exist in private conservatories. The streaked tulips of today that appear broken are most likely impostors, bred to look that way using basic genetics.

But on Saturday, you can get a view of some broken tulips, as judges determine the best-looking English Florist Tulip at the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society’s 182nd broken tulip show. And it’s in settings like this that one can appreciate a broken tulip’s intricate blossom.

“You don’t plant them for mass, you plant them for close-up observation, because of their beauty,” said Mr. Wall, who cut his preservation efforts short after he began losing his eyesight to macular degeneration about a decade ago.

If you’re content with more traditional tulip displays, and just in time for Mother’s Day, you can find a grand tulip festival in another Holland — Holland, Mich. There, half a million visitors have started gathering this week for Tulip Time, where nearly five million tulips have been peppering lawns and parks in this small town. And you can catch a festival this weekend in Albany or the end of another in England, also organized by the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society.

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