PPDL Picture of the Week

May 8, 2017

Two-toned Tulip

Dan Egel, Botany and Plant Pathology

While on a recent family vacation, we found ourselves in Pella, Iowa, a town that styles itself an old Dutch village complete with windmills, clapboard homes and, of course, tulips.  Having a background in botany, I was drawn to the tulips and began taking photos when I found the one in figure 1.   A quick look at figure one might seem to indicate that a red tulip was mixed in with yellow ones.  However, the photo is of a yellow tulip with two red petals (Figure 2).   So, what happened here?


The most likely explanation of the two-tone tulip is that a mutation occurred early in the development of the plant.   The mutation occurred in the non-reproductive cells, making this a somatic mutation.  That means that any seed from this plant would lack the two-toned appearance.   Other types of somatic mutation include apples that have wedges of differing color or green leaves with sections of white.


Readers may have heard of tulips with unusual coloration that were famous during tulipmania in Holland in the 1600’s.  The rare tulips of this period exhibited veins of seemingly unpredictable color.    Many Dutch gardeners paid large sums of money for these tulips. Whereas the interesting tulip I found in Pella had a mutation, we now know that the colorful tulips of Holland in the 1600’s were caused by a virus.


The Dutch eventually decided the diseased tulips were worthless.   And I suppose the mutated tulip I found is similarly insignificant.  Nevertheless, I plan to visit Pella next year to see if I can find any more unusual tulips. ​ 

​​Click image to enlarge


Figure 1: The splotch of red on the tulip at the center of the photo is due to somatic mutation.


Figure 2: The somatic mutation in this yellow tulip has caused two of the petals to turn red. ​