Flaming flowers that brightly blaze. Those words, written in tribute to Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, could just as easily apply to the dazzling displays of tulips for which that troubled artist’s native Netherlands is world-famous. Tulips first came to prominence when they were cultivated in Europe, but if you thought Holland was their natural home, think again.
Wild tulips are native to Central Asia, not Amsterdam. In traditional tulip hotspots, the mountain slopes are shrouded in a glorious technicolour blanket. Sadly, these spring spectacles are in danger of being consigned to the history books. Despite the worldwide popularity of these flamboyant and festive flowers, many wild tulips are threatened with extinction.
Next time you buy a bunch of tulips or a bag of bulbs, take a moment to reflect on the sobering fact that their wild ancestors face an uncertain future.
Tulips are one of our most familiar flowers. These perennial herbaceous bulbiferous geophytes (yes, really) bring a welcome splash of spring colour to our gardens and kitchen tables. There are over 3,000 varieties of cultivated tulip.
Tulips also have tremendous cultural significance for the people of Central Asia. In Kyrgyzstan, they feature in urban displays and within the designs of traditional handmade shyrdak rugs.
Close-up of a traditional felt featuring tulip motif. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna & Flora
One of the local superstars vying for top billing is the stunning Greig’s tulip, Tulipa greigii. Found only in the Tien Shan mountains, this species is highly prized in horticultural circles for its large flowers, vibrant colours and striking leaves. Many cultivated forms of so-called Greigii tulips have been developed since this crucially important flower was first brought to Europe from Central Asia in the late 19th century.
Greig’s tulip, in the Kyrgyz Ala-too Range, Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Ormon Sultangaziev/Fauna & Flora
Wild tulips are native to the mountainous regions of Central Asia, although they can also be found in Turkey. Kyrgyzstan boasts 25 recognised species and also tops the charts in terms of the percentage of endemic tulips, with seven species found nowhere else in the world. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also harbour important populations of wild tulip.
When tulips were first brought to Europe from Central Asia in the 16th century, the Dutch were bewitched. Their obsession sent prices sky high, with collectors prepared to pay a small fortune for the most sought-after bulbs. In 1638, at the height of the hysteria, one exquisitely beautiful and incredibly rare variety, Semper Augustus, was advertised for 13,000 florins – the price of a decent house at the time.
The word tulip derives from a Persian word, delband, which means turban.
The estimated number of wild tulip species.
The number of wild tulip species native to Kyrgyzstan
Threats to wild tulips include overgrazing and trampling by livestock, overharvesting of cut flowers, urbanisation and climate change. These pressures are intensified by a lack of knowledge around wild tulips.
The montane grasslands of Kyrgyzstan are severely degraded. For centuries, Kyrgyz people have grazed livestock, and pastoralism is still an integral part of life in the mountains. Unfortunately, over a quarter of the total area is overgrazed. The local communities themselves recognise that livestock numbers have long since reached unsustainable levels. Tulips are the canary in the coal mine. Their decline as a result of overgrazing and trampling by livestock is an early-warning sign that things need to change. Urbanisation and mining are adding to the pressure on wild tulip habitat.
In the absence of formal protection and management, the popularity of wild tulips means that they are harvested indiscriminately for use as cut flowers, and there is low public awareness about their rarity and global importance.
Wild tulips are perfectly adapted to their montane habitat, but they are not equipped to survive the kind of abnormal fluctuations in temperature that we are increasingly witnessing. All wild tulip species are destined to lose whole tracts of suitable habitat as a result of runaway climate change. As the world warms, these cold-adapted flowers cannot move further up the mountain slopes to escape the heat. A paper led by the University of Cambridge reported that even those tulips least affected by climate change will lose more than half their current habitat by 2050.
Fauna & Flora has been supporting wild tulip conservation in Central Asia for several years. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, we have been working in partnership with Cambridge University Botanic Garden and local partners to survey and protect the high-altitude pastures that harbour wild tulips and other threatened flora. The comprehensive surveys – the first in well over 50 years – have enabled us to gather data that will be crucial in informing future conservation efforts.
The recently discovered Tulipa toktogulica. Credit: Brett Wilson
We have engaged with pastoralists to raise awareness of the importance of tulips and instil local and national pride in the charismatic plants that grow on their doorsteps. The vast majority of local people are keen to learn more about tulips and to be actively involved in their conservation. The plan is to improve pasture management across the wider landscape, setting aside degraded areas of tulip habitat to allow them time to recover. In the longer term, we also aim to help promote transboundary cooperation, which may hold the key to conservation of the region’s rare tulips.
Our wild tulip initiative is one of the most exciting projects that we have ever worked on, but it took almost ten years to secure funding for it. Fundraising for floral species is never easy, but our perseverance was finally rewarded. With support from the UK government’s Darwin Initiative, we are now making up for lost time, engaging with pastoralist communities to develop solutions to overgrazing that help preserve local traditions while protecting threatened flora and their fragile habitat.
The wild ancestors of some of our best-loved garden
flowers are close to extinction.
Please help us to safeguard their future.
Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia, is blessed with beautiful wild and mountainous landscapes, exceptional wildlife, a rich culture and a deeply generous and hospitable people.