Blog Posts

Tulips through time: from mania to mainstream

Published: 12 April 2016
Posted by: English Heritage
Category: Travel and days out

Tulips were first introduced to England in the 1630s as ‘tulipmania’ swept the gardens of wealthy Europeans. They became popular again in Victorian gardens then continued to be planted in glamorous gardens in the 1930s. You can follow the story of their changing popularity in some of our gardens this spring – including the chance to see varieties spanning four centuries at Walmer Castle.

Introducing the Tulip

Tulips bloom later than most of the spring bulbs which appear in English gardens. The earliest varieties appear in March, but the majority flower in April and May.


Five tulips, 1613. Illustration from ‘Hortus Eystettensis’ by Basil Besler (1561-1629), published in 1613.
© Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy

Cultivation of the tulip is thought to have begun in central Asia as early as the 11th century. It is from here that tulips were first introduced to Western Europe. The man credited with bringing the tulips to the Netherlands is Carolus Clusius who set up the botanic garden at Leiden University in 1593 and is known to have planted tulips there that year.

The height of tulip popularity was in the 1630s, when a virus made particular tulip bulbs more vibrant and therefore more valuable.

The Dutch craze for tulips or ‘tulipmania’ in the 1630s was the result of the popularity of these colourful bulbs. At the height of the craze in 1637, some bulbs were recorded as being sold for more than ten times the amount they had been selling for a month before.

Tulipmania at Bolsover Castle

At Bolsover Castle, we’ve recreated the garden to reflect the highly fashionable gardens of the 1630s using accounts by contemporary garden writers like John Gerard and John Parkinson for guidance.

When ‘tulipmania’ broke out in the 1630s Bolsolver’s owner, William Cavendish, may have paid the vast sums tulip bulbs from Holland cost to secure the prize blooms for his garden.


Tulip ‘Duc van Tol Red And Yellow’ (Tulipa greigii hybride) © imageBROKER / Alamy

The tulips that we’ve planted here would all have been available to Cavendish, including ‘Lac Van Rijn’ and ‘Duc van Tol Red and Yellow’ which were both introduced in 1620. In the 1630s tulip bulbs would have been so expensive that they would often have been planted as individual bulbs, which their owners could admire and treasure as well as show off to their friends.

Mainstream popularity in the Victorian era

Tulips rose to prominence again in the 19th century, when they were used in parterre bedding schemes to produce spectacular spring displays. This year across our gardens we have planted over 55,000 tulips, many of which can be found in the Victorian flower beds at Audley End in Essex, Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and Wrest Park in Bedfordshire.


Detail of tulips at Audley End Garden, Essex.

Whenever possible we use tulips that are historically accurate to the property, for example using varieties available in the 19th century in a Victorian parterre. However, sourcing the large quantities of the older and rarer varieties needed is often not possible and we have to rely on newer varieties in order to produce the dynamic bedding displays favoured by the Victorians.

Some historic varieties, however, can be spotted in our displays. At Audley End, historic varieties including ‘Couleur Cardinal’ (introduced 1845) and ‘Keizerskroon’ (introduced 1750) have been planted.

In the 19th century tulips were also available to gardeners working on a smaller, more domestic scale. At Charles Darwin’s home at Down House, his wife Emma was responsible for choosing the flowers to grow in the formal flowerbeds and it is here that tulips would have been planted. Interestingly, although Darwin never seems to have studied tulips explicitly at Down House he does have two groups of tulips named after him ‘Darwin’ and ‘Darwin Hybrids’.

20th century fashion at Eltham Palace

The gardens at Eltham Palace were designed in the fashionable arts and crafts style. Historic photos show that the owners, Virginia and Stephen Courtauld, used tulips in great swathes on the lawn beside the House. This year the brightly coloured tulip ‘Ballerina’ has been planted to create a glamorous spring display.

Tulips Through Time at Walmer Castle

The size, shape and colour of tulips has continually developed over the last 400 years as different varieties have continued to be introduced to the English garden. This spring at Walmer Castle in Kent there is a unique opportunity to see over 15 different varieties that have been introduced over the last 400 years planted side by side.


Potted tulips at Walmer Castle, Kent, in The Queen Mothers garden – designed by Penelope Hobhouse.

From the early varieties of the 17th century including ‘Duc Van Tol Red and Yellow’ to late 20th century varieties including ‘Helmar’, the collection includes some of the most interesting surviving examples of tulips from the last four centuries.

Find out more about heritage tulips and where you can see them this spring on

'step into englands story