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History of Daffodils and Tulips

By Ray Allen, Founder of

The incredible story of these two flowers and how they've evolved since they were 'simple' wildflowers

This story does not start in Holland, but it does end there. In simplest terms, Tulips are from Central Asia. And Daffodils are from Spain and Portugal. Certainly, few flowers have been more intensely "worked on" than these.

Purple Tulips and White Daffodils in Bloom

Many bulb flowers, now all developed, produced, and exported from Holland, are native to other far-flung corners of the earth. In fact, Holland is no bulb's ancestral home. Wild dahlias come from Mexico. Amaryllis is native to South America. Freesias and Callas come from South Africa. And most of the species or "wild" lilies are from China, Japan, and North America. It's important to understand that many of the original wild forms of these famous flowers look nothing like the garden flowers that mostly Dutch hybridizers have created from them. It's a fascinating story, unknown by most wildflower enthusiasts. Most of the true "wild" forms of these bulbs are still available, but with all the clamor and glamour of the hybrids, the wild ones are sometimes hard to find.

Tulip Lilac Wonder
Tulips Peppermint Stick
Tulips Tarda

Three famous wild tulips (left to right): Lilac Wonder, Tulipa bakeri is native to the Greek Island of Crete. It's 6-8" tall. Peppermint Stick, T. clusiana var chrysantha is native to the mountains of Northern Afghanistan, and grows about 13" tall. Tarda, T. Tarda is one of the most important native species used in hybridizing, from Central Asia. Only 5-6" tall.

History of the Tulip

From dry hillsides to the Turkish court to Holland's hybridizers and investors

There are about 150 species of "wild" tulips. Their ancestral region centers around the Pamir Alai and Tien-Shan Mountain Ranges near the modern-day Russian/Chinese border. They occur farther east into China, and west all the way to France and Spain, but most are from arid areas of Central Asia.

The Turks glorified tulips long before the Dutch

You may have heard that tulips "come from Turkey." It would be more accurate to say that before the Europeans paid any attention, the early botanists of the great Ottoman Empire, also called the Turkish Empire, were very interested. In fact, the Turks were cultivating tulips as early as 1,000 AD. But their empire was far larger than modern-day Turkey. The tulips Europeans finally imported hail from areas that are now parts of Russia, around the Black Sea, the Crimea, and even the steppes north of the Caucasus, all parts of the ancient Ottoman Empire.

The Tale of the Tulip

A famous legend from Turkish lore tells of a handsome prince named Farhad who was stricken with love for the fair maid, Shirin. One day he heard that she had been killed, and in his grief, mounted his favorite horse and galloped over a cliff to his death. It is said that from each droplet of his blood, a scarlet tulip sprang up, making the flower an historic symbol of perfect love.

During the glory of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultans celebrated the tulip, and the flowers became part of the trappings of wealth and power. One famous story tells of a Sultan who spent too much on a tulip festival which ultimately led to him "losing his head." So well before the Dutch began their love affair with tulips, they were widely celebrated in their native lands. Today, the tulip is still the national flower of Turkey.

Botanical Drawing of Red Tulip
Botanical Tulip Drawing
Portrait of Carolus Clusius

During the 1500s, early botanical drawings in Europe fueled the fire of interest in the tulip which eventually resulted in the notorious Dutch financial panic known as "Tulipomania." At left is the famous Tulipa bononiensis which looks a lot like our "Red Emperor" tulips today. At center is an early botanical of what we now call "Rembrandt Tulips". The portrait is of Carolus Clusius.

The Tulip goes to Europe

During the 1500's, Europeans became plant explorers, and began recording their findings. Beautiful botanical drawings of tulips began appearing in Europe, so beautiful, in fact, that they gained wide notice. One botanical rendering in particular, called Tulipa bononiensis, became very famous. Others showed the "flamed" tulips that were very exotic to the Europeans, and interest in these "new flowers" continued to grow. These were the multicolored blooms that today are called "Rembrandt" tulips, even though the famous Dutch painter never painted flowers. Other great Dutch painters did.

The main flow of the tulipstory in Holland actually begins with a botanist named Carolus Clusius, working at the University of Leiden. He had worked in Prague and Vienna, mostly with medicinal herbs. But in 1593, he was appointed "Hortulanus", the contemporary title for head botanist, at the University of Leiden's now famous "Hortus", the first botanical garden in Western Europe. However, his "tulip connection" actually began during his earlier projects in Vienna. There, Clusius had met a person called De Busbecq who was the ambassador to the court of the Sultan Suleiman in Constantinople, the seat of the Ottoman Empire. DeBusbecq gave Clusius some tulip bulbs from Central Asia, and he brought those bulbs with him to Holland. The rest, literally, is history.


Clusius was mostly interested in the tulip's scientific importance, probably hoping to find medicinal uses for the bulbs. However, since people in Holland had seen the famous drawings, some became more interested in the flowers as money-makers for the developing ornamental floral trade. Clusius fueled the fire by being very secretive and protective with his bulbs, and after awhile, the public was so determined to have the tulips that some were even stolen from his gardens. This was the beginning of the famous "Tulipomania."

Tulipomania: the famous rise and fall of the "great tulip craze"

Once a few bulbs got beyond the protective grasp of Clusius, they were considered very precious rarities. As a trade in the bulbs began, the prices began to rise. Through the early 1600's the prices skyrocketed as an actual trading market developed. As the hybrids became more and more glamorous, the limited supply of certain bulbs became highly prized by the rich, who ultimately, were willing to pay almost any price. By 1624, one tulip type, with only 12 bulbs available, was selling for 3000 guilders per bulb, the equivalent ot about $1500 today. (Imagine... and you can have a very similar "Rembrandt" tulip bulb now for about 50 cents!) Just a short time later, one famous sale is recorded for a single bulb going for the equivalent of $2250 plus a horse and carriage! It was an incredible bubble, and it was about to burst.

During the 1630s, the frenzy continued as notarized bills of sale were being issued for bulbs, fraud and speculation were rampant, and what always happens with financial "bubbles" happened. The crash came in 1637. Many rich traders became paupers overnight, and the prices finally settled at a much more practical level. Of course, all this did not reduce the real demand, the love of the sheer beauty of the flowers. So ever since those days, the enterprising Dutch have built one of the best organized production and export businesses in the world. Today, over nine billion flower bulbs are produced each year in Holland, and about 7 billion of them are exported, for an export value of three quarters of a billion dollars. According to the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center, the USA is the biggest importer of Dutch bulbs, and in a recent year, $130,000,000 worth of Dutch bulbs (at wholesale) were imported.

The Daffodil: The flower that means spring

Daffodil, Narcissus, Jonquil . First, let's settle the names. The official botanical name of the whole genus is Narcissus. Daffodil is the common name. Jonquil is a "species name" within the Narcissus genus. This means that certain daffodils are called Narcissus jonquilla. Some people, particularly in our Southern states, use Jonquil as a common name for the whole genus, but it's really the species name for a minor group having multiple smaller flowers on each stem. So when you're using the common name, all colors, sizes and types are daffodils. If you get into the botanical or Latin names, they all begin with Narcissus (the "genus") and end with a different "species" name.

Yellow Daffodil

The famous Poet's Daffodil, for example, is Narcissus poeticus. It has that name simply because Linneaus, the person who devised our botanical nomenclature, decided that a certain wild species (white petals with a small bright-colored center) was the one that inspired the ancient tale of Narcissus, handed down by the poets since ancient Greek times. (See photos below.)


Jonquil? And as mentioned, a small, multi-flowered yellow daffodil type is botanically Narcissus jonquilla. Of course, you don't need to know the botanical names to enjoy daffodils. Just choose the colors and types you like. But the story of Narcissus is interesting.

Painting of Narcissus and Echo
The painting above, painted in 1903, is by John William Waterhouse, one of England's most successful Pre-Raphaelite painters.

The tragic story of Narcissus and Echo

Remember Narcissus? Know people who are narcissistic? It all flows from the famous Greek myth about Narcissus, a handsome youth, who was granted his great good looks by the Gods. But as in most myths, there was a catch. His beauty was permanent and he was immortal, as long as he never viewed his own reflection. Once, while Narcissus was hunting in the woods, a nubile wood nymph named Echo saw him from her hiding place behind a tree. He was so handsome, she fell desperately in love, but Narcissus spurned her. She was so devastated by his rejection that she wept and wailed, and was ultimately consumed by her love. She pined so that soon all that was left of her was her voice. The prophecy of her name had come true. But the Gods were not pleased. The goddess, Nemesis, heard about poor Echo, and lured Narcissus to a shimmering lake. There in his vain state, he was unable to resist gazing at his own reflection, and fell in love with himself! As he gazed, the divine penalty took effect, and he simply faded away. In his place sprang up the golden flower that bears his name today. Now you know how Daffodils came to be, and also why psychologists warn vain patients about the "Narcissus complex."

The "Poet's Daffodil" in the wild today

Incredibly, this remarkable wildflower is alive and well in Ukraine.  In fact, they have a preserve there called "The Valley of the Narcissi." where over 600 acres of these magnificent flowers bloom each spring. 

From the ancient poets to Wordsworth and beyond. For all time, it seems, the daffodil has inspired the poet, and even today, nothing connotes the renewal of spring to us as dramatically as a drift of fresh daffodils swaying in a meadow. William Wordsworth, the legendary British poet, perhaps said it best when he wrote of the flowers in his classic poem, "Daffodils", published in 1804. This is the poem that so artfully describes the poet viewing "ten thousand" daffodils beside a lake, and is also the source of the phrase, "Dancing with Daffodils."

I wander’d lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the Milky Way,

They stretch'd in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed — and gazed — but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.

Daffodils, by William Wordsworth

Daffodil Poets
Daffodil Martinette
Daffodil Mix

The Wild Daffodils

While some of the bulbs are still available from specialty sources, the original species are usually much smaller than the sturdy, tall hybrids we all enjoy. Left to right, above, the white, flattened flower with the brilliant orange cup is the Poet's Daffodil, a wild form or at least very ancient variety which Linneas, who invented the botanical naming system, gave the name Narcissus poeticus. He simply decided this is the one originally connected to the early poet's story of Narcissus. Next is Narcissus jonquilla, with several small flowers on each stem. There are several species that have this form, with either single or multiple bright yellow blooms, all "miniatures" compared to today's flowers. From these humble little wildflowers, the hybridizers have created thousands of versions featuring all sizes and a host of colors from the classic golden yellows and whites to bright orange and even pinks (A selection of modern hybrids is shown last.)

Tulips and Daffodils Today:

Field of Red Tulips in Bloom
Tulip Mix in Field in Bloom
Field of Flower Bulbs

Nine billion flower bulbs a year are produced in Holland's modern production fields today.

Today's Dutch bulb industry is a true phenomenon in the world of horticulture. The combination of science and beauty, with applied modern marketing, has created pleasure for gardeners worldwide. Whether it's on a trip to Holland or in your own backyard, anyone can enjoy the spectacular results of one of the world's most successful floracultures.

Keukenhof, the 70-acre, world famous Dutch display garden in Lisse, Holland is open to visitors every year during spring bloom which usually includes Easter and special events. Approximately a million people flock to see over 7 million bulbs in bloom, shown in woodland settings with winding pathways, sculptures, and lakes. Keukenhof's other name is "The Garden of Europe," and it's the largest flower garden in the world.

Mixed Fall Bulbs
Fall Bulbs in Bloom
Close up of Mixed Tulips

Photos in this article are used with gracious permission from The Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center.