Tulips (Tulipa) form a genus of spring-blooming having bulbs as storage organs. The flowers are usually large, showy and brightly coloured, generally red yellow or white. They often have a different coloured blotch at the base of the tepals (petals and sepals, collectively), internally. Because of a degree of variability within the populations, and a long history of cultivation, classification has been complex and controversial. The tulip is a member of the Liliaceae (lily) family, along with 14 other genera, where it is most closely related to Amana, Erythronium and Gagea in the tribe Lilieae. There are about 75 species, and these are divided between four subgenera. The name “tulip” is thought to be derived from a Persian word for turban, which it may have been thought to resemble. Tulips originally were found in a band stretching from Southern Europe to Central Asia, but since the seventeenth century have become widely naturalised and cultivated (see map). In their natural state they are adapted to steppes and mountainous areas with temperate climates. Flowering in the spring, they become dormant in the summer once the flowers and leaves die back, emerging above ground as a shoot from the underground bulb in early spring.
In seventeenth century Netherlands, during the time of the Dutch Golden Age and Tulip mania, an infection of tulip bulbs by the tulip breaking virus created variegated patterns in the tulip flowers that were much admired and valued. This phenomenon was referred to as “broken”. While tulips had probably been cultivated in Asia from the tenth century, they did not come to the attention of the west till the sixteenth century, when western diplomats to the Ottoman court observed and reported on them. They were rapidly introduced into Europe and cultivated and became a frenzied commodity during Tulip mania. Tulips were frequently depicted in paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, and have become associated with the Netherlands, the major producer for world markets, ever since.
Breeding programs have produced thousands of hybrid and cultivars in addition to the original species (known in horticulture as botanical tulips). They are popular throughout the world, both as ornamental garden plants and as cut flowers.