Seventeenth century Netherlands gave birth to some of the greatest artists who have ever lived: Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Dijk to name but a few. It may come as a surprise to many to learn that one of the greatest artists to arise at that time was not human. It was not even living. It was a virus. Viruses are miniscule particles, some ten thousand times smaller than a millimetre. They are the ultimate hitchhikers, with an astonishing facility to multiply in living cells and infect others. At the moment, viruses understandably have an extremely bad press, but in seventeenth century Netherlands, the Tulip Breaking Virus, a virus which infects tulips, gave rise to some of the most beautiful tulip flowers to have ever existed. The virus disrupted or ?broke? the natural pigmentation in the flowers, so crimsons were gorgeously fragmented into delicate feather patterns. The Dutch at the time wowed at these living masterpieces, and owning one became the ultimate status symbol. Prices rose until single bulbs sold for far more than any of the paintings of the time. One of the most famous tulips from this ?Tulipmania? period, Semper Augustus, sold for more than a house! Sadly, or perhaps not so sadly, this economic bubble eventually burst. The virus which had created such beauty also gradually weakened the tulip plants of these famous varieties, and over the years they died out. Having said this, there are one or two varieties from this era which have managed to survive down the centuries, thanks to some very patient and dedicated gardeners. The tulip Zomerschoon (1620), which is the Dutch for ?summer beauty?, is one such survivor. No one is quite sure why it has survived so well for four hundred years. It may be the virus has been somehow weakened in this tulip, or that the plants for some reason have better resistance to the virus? weakening effects. This tulip is still offered for sale in specialist garden shops, and I purchased a single bulb for £70 a few years back. This isn?t quite the 13,000 florins it would have sold for in seventeenth century Holland, but it?s still a hefty price for a single bulb! These true broken tulips are still preserved in Holland?s Hortus Bulborum, a place well worth a visit in the future, but commercial growers of tulips keep more than a social distance from these flowers. The Tulip Breaking Virus they carry could cause devastation of modern tulip varieties. Indeed, in the Netherlands it is now illegal to grow the true broken tulips without special license. Zomerschoon is a temperamental and slow growing diva of a tulip, but one sunny spring day last year, my Zomerschoon delighted our East Oxford neighbours during the Divinity Road Area Open Gardens. Local photographer Paul Proudman was even kind enough to capture the blooms (see photographs). May the true broken tulips of seventeenth century Holland continue to bloom and delight us for many years to come!

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