Tulipa Gesneriana (the Didier’s tulip): History, Symbolism & Care

Tulipa gesneriana, commonly known as the Didier’s tulip or garden tulip, is one of widely cultivated species of tulips in many countries because of its large, showy flowers. This beautiful flowering plant belongs to the Liliaceae family. Most of the cultivars of tulip are derived from Tulipa gesneriana. It has become naturalised in parts of central and southern Europe and scattered locations in North America.

History of Tulipa Gesneriana

Tulipa gesneriana is native to the Eastern Mediterranean region, including areas in modern-day Turkey and Iran. It was first cultivated by the Ottoman Turks in the 10th century. The word “tulip” itself is believed to have originated from the Persian word “dulband,” which means “turban.” This likely refers to the tulip’s turban-like shape when in full bloom.

The first recorded introduction of Tulipa gesneriana to Western Europe occurred in the 16th century. Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius, who became the director of the botanical garden in Leiden, the Netherlands, played a pivotal role in bringing tulips to Europe. Initially, these tulips were seen as exotic and were highly sought after by European collectors and enthusiasts. They became a status symbol among the wealthy elite.

The history of Tulipa gesneriana is famously associated with the tulip mania or “Tulpenwoede” in the Netherlands during the 17th century. This speculative frenzy saw the price of tulip bulbs, particularly those of rare and prized varieties, skyrocket to astronomical levels. At the height of the tulip mania in 1637, some tulip bulbs were traded for the equivalent of a large house, and tulips became a symbol of luxury and excess.

During the Dutch Golden Age (17th century), Tulipa gesneriana not only represented wealth but also became a subject of great interest to artists and painters of the time. Tulip motifs appeared in Dutch still-life paintings, symbolizing opulence and the transience of beauty.

In the 18th century, French botanist and physician Pierre Valentin Didier made significant contributions to the classification and study of tulips. He is associated with the naming of Tulipa gesneriana, giving it the common name “Didier’s tulip.” Didier and other botanists began categorizing and breeding tulips based on their characteristics, leading to the development of numerous cultivars and varieties.

As European colonial powers explored and established trade routes around the world, they introduced tulips to different regions. Tulipa gesneriana became a global flower, admired for its beauty and cultivated in various climates. Today, Tulipa gesneriana is cultivated in gardens, parks, and flower beds worldwide.

How Does Tulipa gesneriana Look Like?

The plant features a single, upright stem that typically grows to a height of 12 to 24 inches (30 to 60 centimeters), although some cultivars can be taller. The stem is slender, green, and may be glaucous (bluish-green) in color.

At the base of the stem, there are a few long, narrow leaves that are alternately arranged. These leaves are grayish-green to bluish-green in color and can be somewhat waxy or fleshy in texture.

The flower is large, cup-shaped and held atop the stem. The flower has six petal-like tepals arranged in two whorls of three each. Tepals are a term used to describe petals and sepals that look alike and cannot be easily distinguished. The size of the flowers can be between 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) in diameter.

The color of the flowers can be in shades of red, yellow, orange, pink, purple, and white. Some varieties may have bi-colored or multi-colored flowers. At the center of the flower, there is a central trumpet-like structure known as the “corona” or “cup.” The corona may have a contrasting color or pattern compared to the outer tepals.

Tulipa gesneriana grows from bulbs, which are underground storage organs that store nutrients for the plant. These bulbs are usually ovoid or pear-shaped and are brown in color.

Most Tulipa gesneriana varieties do not have a strong fragrance. While some tulip species and hybrids feature pleasant scent, these garden tulips are mainly grown for their visual appeal.


In the 17th century, during the “Tulip Mania” in the Netherlands, Tulipa gesneriana bulbs were highly sought after and fetched exorbitant prices. At that time, owning rare tulip bulbs symbolized wealth and social status. This historical association with wealth and fame has endured in the tulip’s symbolism.

Tulips are some of the earliest flowers to bloom in the spring, often emerging from the ground when winter’s grip is still fading. As such, they are seen as symbols of the arrival of spring and the renewal of life and nature after the cold winter months.

Like many other flowers, Tulipa gesneriana is often associated with love and romance. Red tulips, in particular, symbolize deep love and passion. They are a common choice for romantic gestures, such as giving a bouquet of red tulips to a loved one.

The elegant and graceful appearance of Tulipa gesneriana, with its cup-shaped flowers and slender stems, is often associated with qualities like beauty, sophistication, and refinement. They are frequently used in floral arrangements and decorative displays to convey these qualities.

In some contexts, tulips are considered symbols of friendship and goodwill. Giving a bouquet of tulips can be seen as a gesture of friendship and appreciation. In some cultures, white tulips are associated with remembrance and are used to pay tribute to loved ones who have passed away. They symbolize the purity of memories and the hope for eternal rest.

How To Grow And Care For Tulipa gesneriana

Planting Time

The ideal time to plant Tulipa gesneriana bulbs is during the fall, typically between September and November. This period allows the bulbs to take advantage of the remaining warm soil before the onset of winter frost. Planting during the fall is crucial because it enables the bulbs to go through a necessary period of cold dormancy, which is essential for their growth and flowering.

Before planting, it’s important to select high-quality bulbs. Look for bulbs that are firm, plump, and free from mold or rot. Larger bulbs often produce bigger and more impressive blooms, so choose bulbs accordingly based on the desired visual impact.

Choose the Right Location

Tulips perform best when planted in a location that receives full sun to partial shade. They require at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily to develop strong, healthy stems and produce robust blooms. If your garden has limited sunlight, choose tulip varieties that are more tolerant of partial shade.

Well-draining soil is essential for the success of Tulipa gesneriana. They are susceptible to rot if planted in overly wet or waterlogged soil. Sandy or loamy soil with good aeration and drainage is ideal. If your soil has poor drainage, consider amending it with organic matter, such as compost, to improve its structure.

Strong winds can damage tulip flowers and stems. Planting tulips in a location that offers some protection from strong winds or providing windbreaks, such as fences or other tall plants, can help preserve the integrity of the flowers.

Tulips are often a target for deer, rabbits, and rodents, especially during the winter months when food is scarce. If these animals are common in your area, consider planting tulips in locations protected by fencing or using deterrents to keep them at bay.

Soil Preparation

Tulips prefer well-draining soil that allows excess water to escape quickly, preventing the bulbs from sitting in waterlogged conditions. Sandy or loamy soils are ideal for tulips because they offer good drainage while retaining enough moisture for the plants to thrive.

The optimal pH range for growing Tulipa gesneriana is slightly acidic to neutral, typically between 6.0 and 7.0. You can test your soil’s pH with a soil testing kit and adjust it if necessary. If your soil is too acidic, you can add lime to raise the pH, and if it’s too alkaline, you can use sulfur to lower it.

Incorporating organic matter into the soil is beneficial for tulips. Compost, well-rotted manure, or peat moss can improve soil structure, enhance moisture retention, and add essential nutrients. Mix a layer of organic matter into the top 6-8 inches of soil before planting.

Depending on your soil’s condition, you may need to amend it further. For heavy clay soils that drain poorly, adding coarse sand or perlite can enhance drainage. Conversely, if your soil is extremely sandy and drains too quickly, increasing its organic matter content can help retain moisture.

Planting Depth and Spacing

Tulip bulbs should be planted about 6 to 8 inches deep, though the exact depth may vary depending on your region and the size of the bulbs. In colder climates, it’s advisable to plant them slightly deeper to protect them from extreme cold temperatures.

Proper spacing is also essential. Space the bulbs approximately 4 to 6 inches apart to allow for good air circulation and prevent overcrowding. Overcrowding can lead to decreased airflow, which may promote disease and limit the bulbs’ ability to thrive.

Watering And Mulching

After planting tulip bulbs in the fall, water the area thoroughly to help settle the soil and remove any air pockets around the bulbs. This initial watering encourages the roots to establish and initiate growth before the onset of winter.

Overwatering is a common mistake when caring for tulips. These bulbs are susceptible to rot if they sit in excessively wet conditions. Ensure that the planting site has proper drainage to prevent water from pooling around the bulbs.

When you do water, provide a deep soak rather than light, frequent watering. Deep watering encourages the development of deep roots, which makes the plants more resilient to dry spells.

Applying a layer of mulch (such as straw or shredded leaves) around your tulips can help conserve soil moisture, regulate temperature, and reduce weed competition. Just be cautious not to mulch too heavily, as it can trap excess moisture and lead to bulb rot.

Fertilizing Tulipa gesneriana

Fertilize tulips in the spring, just as the green shoots begin to emerge from the soil. This timing provides the bulbs with the nutrients they need to support growth and flower development.

Use a balanced, slow-release granular fertilizer with a formulation such as 10-10-10 or 14-14-14. These numbers represent the percentages of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) in the fertilizer, respectively. Tulips benefit from a balanced fertilizer that provides all essential nutrients in roughly equal proportions.

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the fertilizer package for the correct application rate. Generally, you can sprinkle the fertilizer evenly over the soil around the tulip plants.

Ensure that the fertilizer does not come into direct contact with the tulip bulbs or foliage. It’s best to spread the fertilizer a few inches away from the base of the plants to prevent burning or damage.


Remove faded flowers as soon as they wilt to prevent seed production. This encourages the plant to focus its energy on bulb development rather than seed formation.

Pest and Disease Control

Tulips can be susceptible to pests like aphids and diseases like tulip fire. Keep an eye out for any signs of problems and treat them promptly.

Lift and Divide

After several years, tulip bulbs may become overcrowded, resulting in smaller flowers. Lift and divide them in late spring or early summer when the foliage has withered. Replant the healthy bulbs at the recommended depth.

Companion Planting

Consider planting tulips alongside other spring-blooming bulbs or perennial flowers to create visually appealing flower beds.


Allow the foliage to yellow and wither naturally. Cutting it too soon can weaken the bulb’s ability to store energy for the next year’s growth.

Winter care for tulips

  • Mulch: Apply a layer of mulch around the base of the tulip plants once the ground freezes. Mulch helps to insulate the soil and protect the bulbs from extreme temperature fluctuations. You can use straw, pine needles, or shredded leaves for this purpose. Apply a 2-3 inch layer of mulch.
  • Watering: Ensure that the tulip bulbs are adequately watered before the ground freezes. This will help them establish their roots before winter. However, be cautious not to overwater, as excess moisture can lead to bulb rot during the cold months.
  • Protection from Extreme Cold: If you live in an area with extremely cold winters, consider adding an extra layer of protection. You can use burlap or frost cloth to cover your tulip beds. This can help shield them from harsh winds and extreme cold temperatures.
  • Container Tulips: If you have tulips planted in containers, they are more vulnerable to freezing because the roots are above ground. Move the containers to a sheltered location, like a garage or a shed, to protect them from freezing temperatures.
  • Pest and Disease Management: Winter is a good time to inspect your tulip beds for signs of pests or diseases. Remove any damaged or rotting bulbs to prevent the spread of disease. Check for signs of tulip bulb pests like squirrels, voles, or mice and take appropriate measures to deter them.
  • Fertilization: Avoid fertilizing your tulips in late fall or winter. Fertilizing at this time can encourage new growth that may not survive the cold. Instead, wait until early spring when the tulips start to emerge.
  • Snow Cover: In regions where snowfall is common, a layer of snow can act as a natural insulator for tulip bulbs. However, if the snow cover is thin or if there’s a risk of the bulbs being exposed, consider adding additional mulch or protective coverings.
  • Proper Planting Depth: Ensure that tulip bulbs are planted at the correct depth in the fall. Plant them at a depth of 6-8 inches to protect them from extreme cold and temperature fluctuations.