What explains Delhi's love affair with the tulip?
Every year, the city imports bulbs to fill some of its gardens and recently, the NDMC unveiled a storage facility for tulip bulbs at Lodhi Gardens
Tulips (Tulipa gesneriana L. ) are associated with the Netherlands and, since 1950, the annual tulip festival which takes place at Keukenhof, Amsterdam has been a huge draw.
But, India’s relationship with the flower goes back a few hundred years. Tulips arrived in India via the Mughals. Babur, the emperor who founded the Mughal Empire in the early 16th century, is believed to have brought it from Afghanistan to Kashmir. In the Baburnama, when he describes Kabul, he mentions 32 varieties of tulips. There are even records of Mughal paintings of tulips. One of the well-known paintings is of the red tulip from Kashmir by Mansur Naqqash in the 17th century.
India’s love affair with the tulip has continued into post-colonial times too. The tulip garden in Kashmir (Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, formerly Siraj Bagh), planted in 2007, is the largest in Asia. Since 2008, it has hosted the annual tulip festival which attracts domestic and foreign tourists. India's Capital started its own tulip festival, but contemporary Delhi’s fascination with the flower goes back a few decades. Former first lady Usha Narayanan planted tulips in the Rashtrapati Bhavan Gardens in the 1990s when she was gifted tulip bulbs by a Dutch dignitary. By 2006, the garden had over 5,000 of these exotic blooms and by 2015 the garden had over 10,000 blooms. The tulips are planted annually and in 2022 there were 10,000 blooms of 11 varieties.
Tulips come in vibrant colours like white, red, pink, yellow, and orange, but not all have a fragrance. Several varieties of tulips cultivated in the Netherlands however, do. There is also categorisation made on the early, mid and late flowering varieties. There are six- and eight-petalled flowers as well as multi-petalled ones. There are plants that give a single bloom per bulb as well as multi-flowering or bouquet tulips per single bulb. It's a cornucopia when it comes to tulips.
The plant is native to central Asia and the Caucasus mountains. The cultivation of tulips began in Persia in the 10th century, and was introduced to Europe — the Dutch took the fascination with this flower to a whole other level. Tulips belong to the lily family and have a bulb similar to an onion. They bloom in the spring and the leaves die off leaving the bulb. In the wild, tulips reproduce from pollination and seeds. The seeds take between five to seven years to become a plant that blooms. Gardeners and growers, however, prefer the method of growing via fresh bulbs. Most of the commercially grown varieties are hybrids that propagate via bulbs. The bulbs are planted in the fall and flowers bloom in the spring. During their growing period, tulips require day temperatures of 20-26 degree Celsius and night temperatures of 5-12 degree Celsius.
India’s native species of tulips, the Tulipa stellata or Lady Tulip, is found in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu Kashmir. However, imported bulbs — such as the ones the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) has bought each year since 2016 from the Netherlands for its annual tulip festival — are exotic species. They require specific criteria for cultivation: Areas with well-drained soils, cold winters and dry summers. These three states meet these conditions and thus also have orchards of exotic tulips where they are grown commercially.
The exotic species grow only for one season, and fresh bulbs are planted every year. Exotic species means the plant or animal is not native to the location. Exotic species undergo naturalisation if the conditions are found suitable. Tulips were exotic to the Netherlands too, however, they have naturalised over centuries. They are not invasive, in that they do not push out or threaten native species Since tulip plants find it difficult to survive when the climatic conditions are not suitable, they cannot turn invasive like say, lantana does. However, it is clear that the NMDC does prioritise this exotic species, planting it every season over other native flowering plants.
For the annual tulip festival hosted by the city in February, the NDMC imported over 124,000 tulip bulbs from the Netherlands. However, last month, the NDMC unveiled a storage facility for tulip bulbs at Lodhi Gardens. Over 54,000 bulbs were harvested from the Tulip Festival bloom and around 2,000 bulbs were kept at this storage facility. The remaining 52,000 were sent to Palampur in Himachal Pradesh for re-cultivation. Till the bulbs bloom, the council will continue to import tulip bulbs; it has already ordered 300,000 bulbs for the upcoming winter out of which 200,000 bulbs will be used in the New Delhi area while 100,000 bulbs will be handed over to the Delhi Development Authority according to news reports.
In Palampur, the CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) Institute of the Himalayan Bioresource Technology (CSIR-IHBT) has been carrying out research into the domestication of ornamental plants like tulips in their farms and poly houses. These efforts seek to grow the bulbs indigenously to reduce imports if successful. Clearly, the fascination with tulips continues and the festivals will only get bigger every year.
Viola Rodrigues is a Goa-based paleoceanography scientist with a keen interest in plants and birds