Tulip General Information and Meaning Behind Different Colors

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Tulips are frequently gifted to other people for what they represent. Tulips have an interesting history and each color signifies something unique. Keep reading to learn more!

Tulips are members of the lily family and are native to central Asia mountains, in modern-day Iran, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan. 

Our most beloved, iconic spring flower have a rich history and hold an important place in many cultures.  The name “tulip” comes from a Turkish word meaning “turban,” possibly from the flower’s shape or from the practice of noblemen wearing a the flower in their turbans.

Keep reading below to find out the details of what they signify. You can also check out our tulip planting guide if you are interesting in growing your own.

Overview picture of the meaning of different tulip colors. In the picture itself are some orangeish pink tulip flowers with some in focus and some more blurred out in the background.

History

Persia

Tulips were first cultivated in Persia (Iran) about 1000 years ago. They are a motif on Iranian money and its flag and are featured prominently during new year celebrations.

Turkey

By the 1200s, they made their way to Turkey. As the Turks expanded the Ottoman Empire, conquering Persia, they “discovered” tulips.  Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent adored them, so Turkish botanists began breeding these wildflowers. 

In the 1500s, foreign dignitaries visiting the Sultan’s court became enamored by these flowers and sent bulbs home.

Pink tulips in front of an ancient structure

The Netherlands

In the 1600s, Holland was a wealthy country.  Many people had money to enjoy luxuries including things like tulips. The more exotic and rare the flower, the more desirable and expensive the bulb would be.  One such bulb – ‘Semper Augustus’ – at one-time cost as much as a house!  Speculation and trading in future bulbs created a phenomenon called Tulip mania. 

For about three years, this mania gripped the nation until one day, suddenly no one was buying it anymore. This caused many people to lose money. Luckily, the mania did not ruin the Dutch economy.

It is in the Netherlands that the flowers became what they are today.  Breeding and growing them are a big business, and the country exports 3 billion of them for commercial sale annually.

General Meaning

Perfect Love – Farhad and Sherin

The ancient Persian love story of Farhad and Sherin give tulips their meaning of perfect love.  According to legend, Farhad was an engineer and craftsman who fell in love with the princess Sherin. Tricked by his rival into believing Sherin had died, Farhard took his own life.  Where his blood hit the ground, a red tulip bloomed.

Yellow tulips that are in a field with a blue sky backdrop.

The Meaning of Different Colors

Sending coded messages through flowers was a communication art form developed during the Victorian era.  Called floriography, each flower represents an emotion or sentiment.   A floral arrangement, a bouquet, or a single bloom allowed people to say what they couldn’t speak out loud.  Today, if you want to send a floral message, consider the meanings of different colors.

Red – True Love

Red is supposed to represent true love. This is why traditionally during anniversaries or Valentine’s day, red tulips (or red roses) are given as presents. Red is supposed to evoke feelings of passion and romance.

If you want to seem very romantic, give your lover red tulips, and tell him or her the meaning behind the color. Then, read out a short, but sweet poem expressing your love.

Pink – Friendship

Pink symbolizes happiness and confidence. For this reason, they frequently are given when someone is meaning to express the importance of a friendship. They should be given in situations when you want to celebrate the joys and loyalty found within a friendship.

Pink flowers which mean friendship, happiness, and confidence.

White – Worthiness or Forgiveness

The color white has always meant purity and innocence. When you give someone a white flower, you typically are adoring their purity in character or in faith or you may use it as a “peace offering” to show that you either are forgiving them or you are seeking forgiveness.

Nowadays, white tulips can be given in a multitude of different circumstances, but you can still consider its meaning to show someone you truly care.

Yellow – Happiness or Hopeless Love

Yellow may represent either happiness or a hopeless love. Yellow is frequently associated to the happiness of summer with the yellow rays of the sun shining down. For this reason, it most commonly means cheerful and sunny thoughts. Nonetheless, it can also sometimes represent hopeless love.

Orange – Passion or Physical Love

Want to send a secret message of passion or physical love? Then give someone orange tulips. As an attention-drawing color, it is suitable that orange represent fire, passion, and physical attraction. The color naturally has an energy that helps to convey this feeling.

Orange flowers which represent fire, passion, and physical love.

Purple – Royalty

Purple represents royalty. For centuries, the color purple has been associated with power and wealth. Purple’s elite status originates from the rarity and costliness of purple dye. The meaning of purple flowers will truly come through if you are able to find ones that are a dark purple hue.

FAQ

Perennials versus annuals

Perennials are plants that can live for three or more years when given proper care. They generally die back in the autumn, but the roots stay alive through the winter, and new top growth emerges in the spring.  Some examples include hostas, daylilies, and coneflowers.

True annuals are plants that grow, flower, set seed, and die in one growing season, like zinnias and marigolds.  In northern parts of the country, some plants are considered annuals because the winters are too cold to survive, but are perennial in warmer climates.  Plants like lantana, canna, and impatiens fit into this category.

Wild tulips are perennial in their native habitat.  However, after centuries of breeding, and the bulb industry’s commitment to meet our desire for big, beautiful blooms, many of the them are no longer perennials and should be grown as annuals.

Purple tulips in a field which are supposed to mean royalty.

Do They Grow Back Every Year?

Sometimes.  Some varieties can naturalize or perennialize under the right conditions.  These include Fosteriana, Kaufmanniana (water lily), and Darwin tulips.  If given proper care, you may get a few years of return flowers before it’s time to replant with new bulbs.

How Long Do Bulbs Last?

Although bulbs should be planted soon after you receive them, sometimes weather conditions and warmer soil temperatures create a delay. Store them in a cool, dry place until you can plant them.  Warm and moist conditions will cause rot and mold. 

And, it happens to best of us, you could not plant the bulbs you bought this year. If this is the case, it is possible for that the bulbs can still be plantable the next year if they are properly stored, but it’s unlikely.  It’s probably better to plant the bulb in a container than risk planting it and not having it germinate.

Are They Poisonous to Cats (and Other Animals)?

Tulips are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses.  All parts of the plant are poisonous, with the highest concentration of toxins in the bulb.  Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, loss of coordination, and hypersalivation.  Call your veterinarian right away if your pet eats any part of one.

A cat smelling a small bouquet if pink tulips that are sitting in a teal bucket.

Do They Spread?

While some species can naturalize and develop large clumps or colonies over the years, most hybrid tulips are not natural spreaders, such as squill (Scilla siberica). Other spring-flowering plants with spreading tendencies to consider are creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), and columbine (Aquilegia). 

Do Deer Eat Them?

Deer will eat all parts of these flowers. They often pull up emerging plants, eating the tender shoots and the bulbs. They leave behind large divots and half-eaten bulbs and leaves.  Deter them with a product like Liquid Fence

Repel rabbits and dear with liquid fence to prevent them from eating tulips
Deer and Rabbit Repellent on Amazon

Do Rabbits Eat Them?

They sure do! Rabbits will eat emerging shoots in the spring. They also enjoy the leaves, stems, and flowers. When a rabbit bites a plant, their teeth cut on a precise diagonal.  Fencing, a spray-on repellent (Liquid Fence), and/or an active dog can keep them away.

How Long Do They Bloom?

Tulips only last a few weeks in the garden.  Weather conditions – unseasonably warm temperatures, high winds, and heavy rains – can shorten bloom life.  Planting a mix of early, mid, and late blooming tulips can extend your floral display.

Pink flowers in the bloom.

What Do I Do When They Have Finished Flowering?

If you weren’t tempted to cut all the flowers for bouquets, once they finished flowering, you now have two choices: plant them as annuals or as perennials (hopefully)

If you were growing your tulips as annuals and they have finished blooming, now is the time to dig them out and discard them.  This makes way for your summer annuals!

If you were growing your tulips as perennials, then it is all about giving the bulb the best possible chance to bloom the next spring. Try the steps below:

  • Cut the flower stem down low, past the leaves for a tidy appearance, and prevent the tulip from using energy to set seed.
  • Allow the leaves to turn yellow and wither.  You don’t have to wait until the leaves disintegrate completely; once they are brown, they will no longer produce food for the bulb and can be removed.
  • Avoid watering. Because of its origins, they are adapted to survive in hot, dry summers and don’t need additional water.
  • Fertilize in the fall.  A granular fertilizer with a higher Phosphorus content will feed the roots and the bulb.

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About the author: Carley Miller is a horticultural expert at TheGreenPinky. She previously owned a landscaping business for 25 years and worked at a local garden center for 10 years.

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