Tulip Colors & What They Mean
13 Sep 2022
By Michael Jacobson
Tulips are incredibly striking flowers that come in a wide variety of different colors. As well as being eye-catching and elegant, the tulip’s ability to bloom into a full flower from a small bud almost overnight makes it a particularly appealing and enchanting flower.
Most people are familiar with the bell-shaped head of the tulip, but less so with the fully opened, ready-to-pollinate tulip. They continue to grow when cut and placed in water, so their stems need to be trimmed regularly to prevent them from drooping over.
Tulips are very light-responsive and will turn towards the light and “sleep” or “wake” (open or close) depending upon their environment. All of these factors make tulips a truly fascinating flower to grow, as well as a beautiful one. Whether grown in the garden, in containers, or brought indoors as cut flowers, these vivid blooms are a rewarding and charming addition to your floral display.
The history of tulips
While they are now an accessible plant and popular addition to many people’s gardens, tulips were once the most desirable of flowers and a symbol of power and wealth. They were also very hard to come by.
Awe-struck by their vivid colors and excited by the variety of flowers they were capable of producing, people in the 16th century began to purchase tulips at incredible prices. A single bulb could be worth the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money, and they might well be the first example of what is known in economic terms as a ‘speculative bubble’ - a situation in which an item’s monetary value spikes until it far outweighs its intrinsic value.
But, as we know, all bubbles have to burst and this was eventually true even for the much-coveted tulip, whose high prices eventually leveled out a century later. This didn’t affect their ongoing popularity though, and people have continued to love the tulip for centuries.
Originally wildflowers from Kazakhstan in Central Asia, tulips (Latin name: Tulipa) were discovered in the Kazakhstani mountains and were revered by the leader of the Ottoman Empire Sultan Suleyman the First, whose ambassador took them to Istanbul in Turkey where an annual celebration would mark the blooming of the tulip flowers. The word “tulip” comes from “Tulipan”, which is the Turkish word for “turban”, and reflects the turban-like shape of the semi-closed tulip flower.
The botanist Carolus Clusius, the director of the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, the oldest botanical garden in Europe, was soon introduced to these flowers and took great interest in them. He discovered that the Dutch climate was ideal for these flowers and that they did particularly well in places like the Netherlands. In Istanbul and Amsterdam, the blooming of the tulip is still celebrated each year. The Dutch tulip industry is still vast and provides some of the world’s most beautiful varieties of tulips.
What do tulips symbolize?
Perfect and deep love
One of the most common meanings associated with the tulip is perfect and deep love. Perhaps this originated with the love people had for these flowers as early as 1000 AD and the subsequent “tulip mania” phenomenon. Some say that this meaning stems from Persian folklore, and the tragic love story of Farhad and Shirin. The legend says that the first Tulip bloomed from the blood of Farhad, who killed himself after wrongly believing Shirin had died. Reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, it’s clear to see why this symbol of love remains rooted in the tulip’s history.
Sending tulips to a loved one is a perfect way to show your affection for them, whether they are a partner, family member, or friend.
Many spring-blooming flowers are associated with ideas of rebirth and renewal, and the tulip is no different. This is the ideal bloom to send to anyone who might be starting afresh or venturing to pastures new, whether it be a marriage, new baby, new home or new job.
Another meaning commonly attached to tulips is charity. Since the Victorian Age tulips have been used as a symbol of charity, partly because of the association tulips have with new beginnings and the fact that charity embodies the idea of journeying towards a new and virtuous cause.
Interesting fact: The flame pattern seen on some varieties is now created using genetic tweaking, however, in the midst of 16th century Tulip Mania, as it became known, this coveted flame effect was actually the result of a virus within the plant.
What colors do tulips come in?
Tulips come in a huge variety of colors and this is one of their most appealing features. One of the fascinating things about tulips is the way that they can be a single color one year and “flamed” with stripes of variegated colors the next, making them a really magical garden addition.
Whether opting for a single, bold color or combining different colors within your tulip display, you can be sure that the bright show will add interest and beauty to your garden, containers or bouquet.
Possibly the most well-loved of all tulip colors, red tulips symbolize love, passion and truth. The classic Dutch Apeldoorn Tulip is the most common red tulip variety.
Tulipa Flamboyant is a fabulous example of an orange tulip. These warm, cheerful blooms symbolize care and understanding. In ancient times orange tulips were the gift given to solve arguments. Orange tulips have also been associated with the spiritual connection between two people.
The yellow tulip is a sunny and beautiful addition to any arrangement, so it is perhaps surprising that this color of flower has, in the past, been associated with jealousy and hopeless or unrequited love. But, thankfully people have realized that the zingy yellow tulip more accurately represents cheer and sunshine.
With connotations of grace, refinement, luxury, authority and all things regal, purple tulips are a relatively rare color of tulip. It is alleged that Queen Elizabeth I only allowed members of the royal family to wear the color purple, and that purple tulips could only be found in her royal gardens.
White tulips are sometimes thought of as a great way to tell someone you are sorry. Regarded as the color of apologies or condolences, these clean, fresh-looking flowers also symbolize purity, honor and holiness. They therefore make a wonderful gift for someone celebrating a religious festival or milestone. They are also a great flower to give to anyone embarking on new challenges, as it is believed by some that if you dream about a white tulip you may soon experience a new event or fresh start.
A congratulatory color and also the hue used to represent congratulations, pink tulips are one of the cheeriest and most attractive of all tulip colors. This shade of flower is also related to themes of caring and well-wishing, making them a brilliant choice for anyone wanting to send general good wishes to a friend or loved one.
It is believed by many that tulips come in every color other than blue, but this is no longer the case. Ranging in shades from vibrant cornflower blues through to deep purple-blue shades, the blue tulip does exist and is a truly striking color to opt for. Suggesting peace, tranquility and trust, blue tulips are, in actual fact, a variety of the more common white tulip. Varieties such as Blue Aimable and Blue Wow are popular choices.
The cultural significance of tulips
A flower that has rarely gone out of fashion, the tulip has different meanings across different parts of the world, and the various colors of tulips have nuanced significance across different cultures too.
The Tulip is undoubtedly the Netherlands’ most famous flower and is often used as the visual icon of the nation. In Turkey, the tulip is regarded as embodying spiritual power able to ward off evil, as well as signifying Turkey’s cultural identity. In some parts of the world, the variegated tulip is regarded as a symbol of the eye.
Tulips have been depicted in art - from paintings to crafted objects and homewares - for centuries. In the early 17th century, artists from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg began painting intricate depictions of floral arrangements, in which the tulip featured strongly, not least due to their beauty and their desirability.
Tulips have also appeared throughout the ages in works of literature, including Margaret Atwood’s award-winning Handmaid’s Tale where they represent blood and fertility. Sylvia Plath has also explored the tulip as a literary device in her poem Tulips.
Where can I find out more about tulips?
- Interested in learning more about this magnificent flower? Take a look at the Royal Horticultural Society’s web pages for excellent advice on how to grow and care for your tulips.
- You can also find out more about great ways to get the most from your tulip flowers here.
- The National Trust’s tulip pages are a great way to learn more about the history of tulips and their cultural significance throughout the ages.
- If you are interested in the intriguing folklore behind tulips and their importance in Islamic culture, head over to this article in the Islamic Arts Magazine to find out more.
One of the world’s most beloved flowers, people’s admiration for the tulip never seems to wane. With their many sentiments and meanings, tulips are one of the most spellbinding as well as one of the most well-loved flowers across many parts of the world.
Paired with their range of colors and varieties, there are no wonder tulips are a popular choice of flower to be gifted for a wide range of occasions. Given as a cut bouquet or a potted plant, tulips are sure to brighten the recipient’s day and can send almost any message you’d wish to communicate through their color alone.
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