The tulip is a Eurasian and North African genus of perennial, bulbous plants in the lily family. It is an herbaceous herb with showy flowers, of which around 75 wild species are currently accepted.
The genus’s native range extends west to the Iberian Peninsula, through North Africa to Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, throughout the Levant (Syria, Israel, Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Jordan) and Iran, north to Ukraine, southern Siberia and Mongolia, and east to the Northwest of China. The tulip’s centre of diversity is in the Pamir, Hindu Kush, and Tien Shan mountains. It is a common element of steppe and winter-rain Mediterranean vegetation.
A number of species and many hybrid cultivars are grown in gardens or as potted plants.
Tulips are spring-blooming perennials that grow from bulbs. Depending on the species, tulip plants can be between 4 inches (10 cm) and 28 inches (71 cm) high. The tulip’s large flowers usually bloom on scapes with leaves in a rosette at ground level and a single flowering stalk arising from amongst the leaves.Tulip stems have few leaves. Larger species tend to have multiple leaves. Plants typically have two to six leaves, some species up to 12. The tulip’s leaf is strap-shaped, with a waxy coating, and the leaves are alternately arranged on the stem; these fleshy blades are often bluish green in color. Most tulips produce only one flower per stem, but a few species bear multiple flowers on their scapes (e.g. Tulipa turkestanica). The generally cup or star-shaped tulip flower has three petals and three sepals, which are often termed tepals because they are nearly identical. These six tepals are often marked on the interior surface near the bases with darker colorings. Tulip flowers come in a wide variety of colors, except pure blue (several tulips with “blue” in the name have a faint violet hue).
Tip of a tulip stamen. Note the pollen grains
The flowers have six distinct, basifixed stamens with filaments shorter than the tepals. Each stigma has three distinct lobes, and the ovaries are superior, with three chambers. The tulip’s seed is a capsule with a leathery covering and an ellipsoid to globe shape. Each capsule contains numerous flat, disc-shaped seeds in two rows per chamber. These light to dark brown seeds have very thin seed coats and endosperm that does not normally fill the entire seed.
The word tulip, first mentioned in western Europe in or around 1554 and seemingly derived from the “Turkish Letters” of diplomat Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, first appeared in English as tulipa or tulipant, entering the language by way of French: tulipe and its obsolete form tulipan or by way of Modern Latin tulipa, from Ottoman Turkish tülbend (“muslin” or “gauze”), and may be ultimately derived from the Persian: delband (“Turban”), this name being applied because of a perceived resemblance of the shape of a tulip flower to that of a turban. This may have been due to a translation error in early times, when it was fashionable in the Ottoman Empire to wear tulips on turbans. The translator possibly confused the flower for the turban.
Tulips are called lale in Turkish. When written in Arabic letters, “lale” has the same letters as Allah, which is why the flower became a holy symbol. It was also associated with the House of Osman, resulting in tulips being widely used in decorative motifs on tiles, mosques, fabrics, crockery, etc. in the Ottoman Empire.
Tulip cultivars have usually several species in their direct background, but most have been derived from Tulipa suaveolens, often erroneously listed as Tulipa schrenkii. Tulipa gesneriana is in itself an early hybrid of complex origin and is probably not the same taxon as was described by Conrad Gesner in the 16th century.
Tulips are indigenous to mountainous areas with temperate climates and need a period of cool dormancy, known as vernalization. They thrive in climates with long, cool springs and dry summers. Tulip bulbs imported to warm-winter areas of are often planted in autumn to be treated as annuals.
Tulip bulbs are typically planted around late summer and fall, in well-drained soils, normally from 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) deep, depending on the type. Species tulips are normally planted deeper.