Updated: Sep 25, 2019
The Search for A Black Tulip – The Queen of the Night
In 1850 Alexandre Dumas wrote his famed novel “La Tulipe Noire” in which a 17th–century political prisoner who, with the help of his jailer’s beautiful daughter, manages to produce a black tulip: “as black and brilliant as jet.” While in 1850 Dumas’ book was the stuff of dreams and fantasy, 41 years later his musings were brought to life with he first recorded “black tulip” appeared in 1891. This tulip was hybridized in 1944 to create the a new standard in black tulips “Queen of the Night.”
Tulip hybridizing is extraordinarily difficult, however, as tulips do not follow Medel’s law of genetics and two red tulips can produce offspring of any variety of colors. Additionally, the act of growing a tulip actually kills the bulb so, unlike daffodils, which naturalize and spread on their own, a garden of flowering tulips will eventually (within 2-5 years) die out--if not replenished with new bulbs.
Even to produce a blooming tulip bulb is an excruciating undertaking with tulip seeds developing into bulbs that can flower only after 5 years. Clones are then created of favored varieties but since these varieties are not produced through genetic mixing, they do not develop resistances to new environmental stresses, such as viruses. Tulips, even standard bred tulips, are exceedingly prone to viruses. In fact, the Rembrandt-style tulips, that became all of the rage during tulip mania in the 1600s, with their unexpected color veining, breaks, and vibrant swatches were actually the result of a virus ravaging the bulb below the surface. This is why the very tulips of the 17thcentury that brought the flower its modern day popularity are nearly all extinct.
Since 1944 Queen of the Night has been the designer staple of black tulips and tops design and award lists year after year. Tulip breeders, however, know that it is quickly on its way to eventual extinction with a virus likely to decimate the clone stock sooner than later. Thus, a rush began in the 1980s for a replacement black tulip. In 1984 a Dutch tulip hybridizer claimed to have produced the next best black tulip, one to replace Queen of the Night. Investors the world over offered the breeder, Mr. Hangmann, over $20 million for the bulb that finally produced a tulip remarkably similar to Queen of the Night. Mr. Hangmann held on to the bulb, planting it instead in a secret location amongst millions of other tulips and year after year worked to strengthen the stock. In the year 2000 his patience finally paid off when he introduced the world to the Paul Scherer. Near identical to the Queen of the Night, the Paul Scherer, however, has not yet taken off in popularity like its seemingly irreplaceable predecessor. It seems, instead, it is destined to wait in the wings, for a day when the Queen may succumb to the tulip virus and we will need to look elsewhere for the elusive beauty of a near black tulip.
Petals By Pedal painstakingly cultivates Queen of the Night tulips in Boulder, Colorado using organic and sustainable growing techniques. Please contact each May for an order of these ephemeral and elusive blooms!