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Tulips from Kazakhstan

Max Bygraves may have sung about tulips from Amsterdam, but the origins of the plant so closely associated with Holland lie several thousand kilometres to the east. The tulip probably arrived in the Low Countries in the 16th century, when Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Ambassador of Ferdinand I of Austria to the Ottoman Empire, then ruled by Suleiman the Magnificent, sent some tulip bulbs back from Constantinople to his friend, Flemish botanist Charles de I'Ecluse. The latter established them at the botanical gardens at Leiden University from where, abetted by a theft of bulbs, they helped to fuel the tulip mania in early 17th-century Holland, when members of the Dutch elite, in competition for the showiest examples, bid up the prices to astonishing levels. But Constantinople was not the place of origin of the tulip either. The largest number of the 100 or so species of the tulip genus is found in Central Asia, and botanists believe that the genus appeared here around the end of the Miocene era.

Kazakhstan has a particularly rich collection - some 34 wild tulip species are found here - and thus the suggestion that Kazakhstan may be the place of origin of the tulip is a reasonable one, though there are other contenders within the region. The process of identification and classification of the wild tulips of Kazakhstan was carried out by the botanists of Tsarist Russia. Peter Pallas, a German botanist working in Russia, where he was a professor at the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, led an expedition to central Russia and west Siberia between 1768 and 1774, covering the Altai Mountains and parts of present-day northern Kazakhstan. Among the numerous natural history specimens collected were tulips, and Pallas provided the first scientific description of a tulip from Kazakhstan (Tulipa biflora). These collecting expeditions were arduous and dangerous. One collector, Alexander Lehmann, became sick and died at the age of 28 on the return leg of a collecting expedition on behalf of the St Petersburg Botanical Garden in 1842. Tulipa lehmanniana, found in the Kyzylkum Desert, is named in his honour.

Three species found in Kazakhstan have played a particularly important role in the establishment of cultivated tulips. Two of these are found in the Aksu Zhabagly Reserve, and adjacent areas of the western Tian Shan and Karatau mountains. Greig's tulip (Tulipa greigii) was named after Samuel Greig, a president of the Russian Society of Horticulturalists. Kaufmann's tulip (Tulipa kaufmanniana) is named after a governor general of Turkestan. It is sometimes known as the water lily tulip as its flowers open out horizontally in full bloom, giving it a water lily-like appearance. The third, Schrenk's tulip (Tulipa schrenkii), is found across northern and central Kazakhstan to the Caspian. There are important populations in the Naurzym and Korgalzhyn reserves. It is named after Alexander Schrenk, a researcher of the St Petersburg Botanical Garden, who explored the area. The Schrenk's tulip was probably a progenitor of those sent back from Constantinople by Ghiselin de Busbecq. So, more a case of tulips to Amsterdam.