Tulips broken by viruses

three broken tulipsA consequence of the recent warm weather in the northeastern United States is the emergence of crocuses, an event that I documented at the TWiV Facebook page. A reader replied that it reminded her of the highly valued tulips with beautiful variegations produced by viruses.

In 17th-century Holland patterned tulips such as the Semper Augustus (image) were of enormous value, with single bulbs selling for 3000 guilders or more (about $1600 US today). The intricate lines and flame-like streaks produced stunning effects. We now know that these colorful patterns are caused by infection with potyviruses, which are filamentous plant viruses with positive-strand RNA genomes. The specific viruses involved are tulip-breaking virus, tulip top-breaking virus, tulip bandbreaking virus, and Rembrandt tulip-breaking virus. Lilies may also be patterned by infection with Lily mottle virus. These viruses infect the bulb and cause the single color to break, leading to bars, stripes, streaks, featherings or flame-like effects of different colors on the petals. These effects are caused by altered distribution of pigments in the petal caused by virus replication.

Unfortunately, infection with tulip-breaking viruses is not benign: with successive generations the bulb shrinks until it can no longer flower. For this reason most of the lines of broken tulips, including Semper Augustus, no longer exist. These viruses still circulate globally, transmitted by aphids. Because infection can cause costly damage to tulips, precautions must be taken to minimize spread. Contemporary variegated tulips such as Rem’s Sensation are produced by breeding, not virus infection.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris 14 March 2012, 5:03 pm

    Yay!  Thank you!  (My letter asking for something like this was read on TWiV 137)

    It is fascinating how a virus and an insect (aphid) created a financial craze.  It is must not be a coincidence that the cited paper is from Leiden University and a Dutch Bulb Centre.  We still find effects of viruses and aphids in our gardens.   Especially those pesky aphids.

    Here in the Pacific Northwest crocus, reticulated dwarf iris, grape hyacinths (muscari)  and daffodils are blooming.  The tulips have just started to come up.  I should be weeding them, except we are getting rain mixed with snow and the garden is very muddy.  Fortunately it is keeping the aphids away (though some found their way to some indoor plants), but it brings about a subject for TWiM:  fungal diseases.

  • azileretsis 19 March 2012, 1:00 pm

    What a great story!?! Thank you for sharing it. 

  • William Schmidt 12 May 2013, 3:29 pm

    You have fantastically erred on the pricing of a 1630s Semper Augustus.

    3000 Dutch Gilders of the 1630s equivalent to 1600 USD today? How did you ever reach this conclusion?