Tulips In The East

More than five hundred years before tulips were first seen in western Europe, the flowers were cultivated and admired in beautiful Islamic gardens in Persia (now called Iran). Tulips grew wild right across Central Asia, blooming alongside the ancient Silk Road, the first major trading route of world history. It’s very likely that merchants and nomads took tulip bulbs with them on their journeys, speeding up the natural migration of the flowers. Wild tulips flourish in Anatolia (modern Turkey) too; where nomadic Turkish tribes settled and established the Ottoman Empire.


It is ironic that Europe’s most 
low-lying and flat country should now be so closely associated with the world’s favourite mountain flower.

Wild tulips first appeared in the remote 
and desolate mountains of central Asia. 

The Tian Shan Mountains range across 
the borders between northwest China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and the tulips that grew there were hardy, groundhugging plants with short stems that could withstand snowdrifts and high winds.

The Tian Shan are known as the 
Celestial Mountains by the Chinese, as they are so enormously high that they reach up to Heaven. They may look celestial from a distance, but there’s nothing heavenly about their fierce, freezing winters that drag on into April or temperatures that sear the tulips’ leaves in the summer, forcing the flowers to retreat back into their bulbs. 

The tulips spread south and east into 
Kashmir and the Himalayas, but mostly they moved westwards, first into the Pamir-Alai Mountains and from there further west towards the Hindu Kush and Turkmenistan. Almost certainly they were helped on their way by nomadic tribes and merchants who were also travelling along the Silk Route to reach Persia (modern Iran) and the Caucasus, which we now know as Turkey. Their westward migration continued into the Balkans and skirted all around the Mediterranean to Spain before somehow straddling the Straits of Gibraltar to reach the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. 

Bounded by deserts to the south 
and the Atlantic to the west, there was nowhere else to go that had the cold winters that tulips require. That was until human beings began to cherish these flowers that welcomed the spring and heralded the summer, and to appreciate their beautiful and unpredictable blooms. These were usually red but could also be lemon-yellow, white or amber. With a little help from humans, tulips were about to conquer the rest of the world...