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The tulip is a bulbous perennial plant of the family Liliaceae (lilies) and the genus Tulipa. It contains over a hundred species and thousands of modern hybrids and cultivars. Tulips are solitary upright flowers with strong and bright colors. Depending on the species or variety, the length of the stem can vary from 8 cm to a meter. Today’s tulip cultivars and hybrids have a wide range of colors and shapes. However, the original, native tulip species were mostly in shades of red and yellow, and had smaller flowers. Since the tulip species evolved at mountain altitudes, the plant is tolerant to cold winters and drought.

Habitat

Tulips are native to the temperate zones of Central and Western Asia. There are approximately 120 species of wild tulip. Of these, three-quarters are native to central Asia. Modern science speculates that the tulips were likely to originate from the Pamir-Altai Mountains of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The tulips were colonized early in the region of the Caucasus Mountains. From there, the tulips then naturally spread toward east—to India, Himalayas and Western China, and toward west— to the Middle East and the Atlas Mountains.

Name and Etymology

The tulip flower is also known under several other common names, including tulipan, tulipant, tulipano, pot of gold, lale, lâleh, common tulip, Didier’s tulip and Dalmatian cap. The French used to call this flower tulipan, a name derived from the Persian word for turban, tulbend. In Turkey, the flower is known under the common name laleh. Since the letters of laleh, when rearranged, form the name Allah in Turkish, the Turks considered the tulip a divine plant.

Tulips as a Symbol of Romance, Passion and Maddening Love

Many tulip meanings revolve around the idea of romantic and passionate love. The tulip symbolizes several aspects of romantic love, such as: absolute romance, a declaration of love, dreaminess and imagination, romance, elegance and grace. The flower also symbolizes the grip of overwhelming attraction, and is therefore associated with sensuality, advancement, lust and determination. Sometimes, the flower was considered an aphrodisiac. Finally, the tulip sometimes becomes an emblem of a person blinded by desire, and it represents arrogance, aspiration, determination, importance, notoriety and a lover’s heart darkened by passion.

A Persian love story about Farhad and Shirin immortalized the tulips as flowers of love. The story goes that Farhad loved Shirin, but couldn’t confess his love. One day, upon hearing the news of his beloved’s death, Farhad was grief-stricken and chose to die by stabbing himself to death. From the soil upon which his blood fell, red tulips are and bloomed, becoming a symbol of eternal, never-ending love.

Historically, the tulip was the beloved flower of the East. Its origins have been traced to Persia, where the flower was an emblem of consuming love. Persian stories narrate that, whenever a bachelor gifted a tulip flower to a girl, he conveyed his adoration and love for her. The black base of the tulip flower also symbolized that his heart was burnt to a coal.

The Beloved Tulip of Sultans and Emperors

Some of the tulip meanings are associated with the mighty rulers and wealthy men of the past. Once upon a time, the Turkish Sultans held an annual Feast of Tulips, an opulent event during which all the gardens were richly decorated and the entire harem attended the festivities. It is believed that the sultans brought tulips from Iran and India. It is also believed that the Turks were the first people who cultivated tulips. The flower was the official flower of sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. An entire historic period in the Otoman history was named the tulip period, or tulip era. It lasted from 1718 to 1730. Today, the tulip is a national flower of Turkey.

It is believed that the tulip was then brought from Persia to the Levant. The story goes that, in the middle of the sixteenth century, Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, the ambassador from the Emperor of Germany to the Sublime Porte, was traveling from Adrianople to Constantinople. He was amazed at the sight of tulips along the road, as they were blooming in the middle of winter. Busbecq introduced the flower to Western Europe, where they became popular immediately. In 1530, a ship captain by the name of Lopez Sampayo gifted the Portugal king some tulip flowers, and from there, the flower was then introduced to Spain as well.

Carolus Clusius, the French botanist in charge of the imperial gardens in Vienna acquired tulip seeds from de Busbecq, germinated them, and sent bulbs to England in 1578. After he joined the University of Leyden as a Professor of Botany, Clusius brought with him tulip bulbs and planted them at the university gardens.

Tulips as a Symbol of Feverish Obsession

One of the strongest tulip meanings is obsession at the borderline of mania. The reason for this interpretation is historical. In Holland, the obsession with the beautiful tulip flowers reached unexpected heights and a true frenzy in the period from 1634 to 1637. The phenomenon became known as “tulipomania” or the “tulip fever”. There was an extremely high demand among the people of all social classes to possess rare types of tulips. The price of certain tulip varieties (named Viceroy, Admiral Liefken, Admiral Van Der Eyk, Schilder, Semper Augustus, etc.) became enormous, yet people were ready to purchase tulip bulbs at any cost.

Some tulips were even more expensive than jewels. Anecdotes tell of cases when cattle, land and houses were traded for just a couple of tulip bulbs. Eventually, the “tulip bubble” burst, and many lost their possessions in this unusual flower craze. After the crash of the tulip market the Dutch government imposed regulations of the tulip trade. The 2017 movie “Tulip Fever,” with Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz in leading roles, popularized this interesting episode in the Dutch history.

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Tulips as Symbols of Royalty, Wealth and Prestige

From the Turkish sultans to the Dutch nobility, historically the tulip flowers have been precious possessions of the wealthy and mighty. In spite of the common appeal of this flower to people across social and economic classes, not many could own it. Tulips have, therefore, become emblematic of the rich and the affluent.

Tulips as a Symbol of Luck, Abundance, Protection and Fame

Certain tulip meanings originate from folklore and fairytales. According to a popular folk belief, the fairies and pixies use the tulip flowers as cradles in which they rock baby elves to sleep. They also make their clothes from tulip petals. It is also believed that the fairies and the elves protect those who cultivate tulips.

The tulip flowers brings love, prosperity, abundance, luck and fame for the owner. Wearing a tulip flower is a powerful protection against poverty and bad luck. Placing tulip flowers in a vase in the kitchen is believed to attract good and plenty in the house.

Persian poets often mentioned tulips in their poetry. One of them, Musharrifu’d-din Saadi, described them growing within a heavenly garden, thus becoming symbols of beauty and plentitude.

In the Christian tradition, tulips are associated with May 1, the day dedicated to St. Philip and St. James.

Tulips as a Symbol of Purity and Innocence

A legend popularized by the Jesuit poet Rapin tells the story of an innocent and modest Dalmatian nymph. Proteus, the god of the sea, notices the beauty of the nymph. In order to get her attention and seduce her, he disguises himself as Vertumnus, a world traveler. When, in spite of all his gifts and tricks he fails to win her heart, Proteus decides to take her by force. In desperation, the nymph prayed to the sky to be saved, and her wish was granted. She metamorphosed (turned into) a beautiful tulip flower.

The Tulip as the Eleventh Anniversary Flower

One of the tulip meanings is in relation to anniversary celebrations. Every wedding anniversary is known to have a flower symbolically associated with it. Tulips celebrate love on the 11th wedding anniversary, when couples traditionally gift tulips to each other. It is also common to use tulips as decoration flowers on the occasion on the anniversary celebration.

Tulips as a Symbol of Jealousy and Unrequited Love

In India, the traditional meaning given to the tulip is not so positive, as the flower symbolizes jealousy and unhappy love. The origin of this belief can be traced back to an Indian story named “Rose of Bakawali”. The fairy Bakawali was so beautiful that “The tulip immersed itself in blood because of the jealousy it entertained of her charming lips!”. The story ends with the bitter words of the hero whose love for the fairy remains unrequited. “I quit this garden carrying in my heart, like the tulip, the wound of unhappy love—I go, my head covered with dust, my heart bleeding, my breast fevered”. Thus not all tulip meanings are positive and auspicious.

Tulip Meanings by Color

In the Victorian-Era symbolic language of flowers, each color of tulip flowers carry specific meanings. These tulip meanings should be considered when gifting someone tulip flowers.

Red tulips symbolized declaration of love, irresistible love, undying love and trust. They carried the message: “Believe me” or “Believe that I love you”. Gifting an orange tulip communicated the message “I am fascinated by you”. Pink tulip meant “My perfect lover,” purple tulip meant “Eternal love,” and yellow tulip was often an inauspicious messenger—it meant either hopeless love, or no chance of reconciliation. White tulip was a flower of youth, innocence, sincerity and virginity; sometimes, it also symbolized forgiveness. An intriguing symbolism was ascribed to the variegated tulip flowers—they meant “You have beautiful, magical, splendid eyes.”