One of my favorite spring spots in Washington, DC, is the Tulip Library. The cherry blossoms get all the attention, but this collection of nearly 100 varieties of tulip (such as the one above) that bloom from April to early May is truly special. These tulips aren’t wild, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something today about their wild brethren.
A few years ago, a plant scientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Ben J. M. Zonneveld, published a study of the tulip genus genome in Plant Systematics and Evolution. He had collected more than 400 wild tulips from Europe and Asia and concluded that there are at least 87 wild species of the flower (he has since found number 88). He couldn’t determine exactly where the ancestor of the modern tulip came from, but he was certain that it wasn’t Turkey, despite legends that say that’s where the flower originated.
Zonneveld also discovered something odd about tulip DNA — there was a lot of it, and different tulip species had different amounts, ranging from 32 to 69 picograms (a millionth of a millionth of a gram) of DNA in every nucleus. DNA in the human nucleus, in comparison, weighs only 7 picograms. No one has figured out yet why the flowers have so much more DNA than we do, but the tulip genome has about the same number of genes as found in the human genome, so it’s not that they’re overwhelmed with genes.
It’s kind of fitting that the tulip research comes from the Netherlands, as the Dutch have been tulip mad for centuries. Zonneveld is continuing that tradition; he says he has 2,000 different types of tulips in his personal collection, including many varieties that he created and that exist nowhere else. It kind of puts the Tulip Library to shame, but at least that garden is a lot closer to home.
Image of the Tulip Library taken by the author