Cambridge University researcher Brett Wilson, explains more about these recent findings and why the conservation of this beloved spring bulb is so crucial if we are to preserve these spring mountain displays.
You’ve recently had a research paper published about tulips in the wild – what were the key findings and how might these affect cultivated tulips here in our own gardens?
Our paper published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, looks at tulip distributions and the impacts of climate change on these in Central Asia. This is the first-time climate change has been assessed in the context of tulips. We took a regional approach ensuring we got a broader perspective on these tulips than any previous work. What we found was quite scary! All tulips look like they will lose habitat due to the impacts of climate change and many will have no suitable habitat left by 2050 at all. A number of species will see their suitable habitat shift to higher altitudes and so will be forced to migrate which may require human intervention. We also uncovered that current protected areas are not adequately protecting these species and this inadequacy would be exacerbated under climate change. In the context of garden tulips, it seems that growth and flowering of these plants will likely be altered by climate change. Tulips rely on seasonal triggers to initiate their short growing season and struggle with waterlogged soil, so changes in temperature and rainfall may have serious negative effects on yield and quality of flowers.
What are the main differences between wild species tulips and cultivated tulips?
This is quite a tricky question because the diversity of tulip size and flower morphology in the wild is much broader than you would expect. There are many smaller wild species that have not had a great influence on cultivated varieties as they are not extremely showy. However, surprisingly there are also a number of wild species that have the large bucket flower and long stems that we associate with the typical tulip and so these are easily recognizable to even the most amateur of tulip growers. Many of these have been used in cultivation at some point in the long horticultural history of this plant. One thing I think that is quite different from what generally is expected is where these wild plants grow. Many grow in alpine areas deep in the mountains and frequently in extremely arid places, while our garden varieties are much more tolerant of wetter soil conditions and grow well in many temperate areas around the world.
Why is it important for us to understand more about tulips species that grow in the wild and why is their conservation so crucial?
Horticultural tulips support a huge Billion Euro industry. Wild tulips were originally at the heart of this trade, yet in today’s world they have become more separated. Yet wild tulips harbor an enormous amount of genetic diversity that could be useful in breeding new cultivars with increased disease tolerance, better frost resistance, and new flower morphologies; potentially even cultivated varieties that may be hardier under climate change. They therefore remain, from a purely selfish human perspective, a crucial resource heading into the future. Combine this with their important role in insect lives, especially pollinators, their huge cultural significance across a number of countries and regions, and their ability to act as an indicator of broader ecosystem health, then you can see them as extremely valuable to not only the broader global community, but crucially to the habitats that they grow in including to local communities. Given we know that many of these species are in decline and are increasingly threatened with extinction we must learn more so that we can effectively prevent this from happening.
Having observed tulips growing in their native habitats in the wild, what have you discovered about tulips and their needs?
Primarily, that tulips can be extremely hardy even though they are a fragile flower. I have seen this flower clinging on to bare soil on the edge of steep slopes and cliffs surrounded by towering mountains, I have seen tulips growing near villages in tiny fragments of undisturbed habitat, and I have seen distinctive tulip leaves sprouting in extremely hot arid areas in an almost moon like landscape. However, I have also seen the damage that livestock can have on populations through grazing and trampling, the desire for people to pick these plants and the negative impacts that go with this, and our recent paper shows that climate change will drastically affect these plants as well. Given my experiences I have really come to see that although these plants are surprisingly hardy and can tolerate lots of disturbance, that they are fragile as well and need to be cared for. I think what tulips really need is an ease up in some of these threats. I am sure they will thrive when given the opportunity, but right now populations are being relentlessly bombarded from all angles.
What part does CUBG’s National Collection of species tulips play in the research and conservation of tulips?
The national collection of tulips at Cambridge is an amazing resource. Not only does it act as an ex-situ collection, protecting species outside of their native habitat, as well as a distribution hub from which other botanic gardens can request resources, but crucially is a collection of wild plants that can be studied by scientists without the need to travel to the native habitat of these plants. For our work it has acted as a source of leaf material from which we can extract DNA and begin to explore how different species are genetically related to one another. Through this we can understand, redefine, and clarify species concepts which on the ground conservation efforts rely on. So, this collection is not only safeguarding specimens of many Threatened species, but also aiding us in developing a fundamental understanding of wild tulip diversity.
What can we as gardeners do to support tulip conservation?
Gardeners are in important part of the plant conservation community. Although Central Asia is a long way away there are a number of things that can be done at home to make a difference to wild tulips and the broader ecosystem. First, understanding and spreading accurate information about the plight of these species is crucial. Gardeners are often well informed about the plants that grow in their garden, but it is also important to think about where these plants came from. Make sure you buy plants from reliable and regulated sources, grow plants that encourage native wildlife, and use these plants as a tool to encourage others to get involved in the conservation movement.
Second, supporting conservation organizations is also critical. We work with Fauna & Flora International in our efforts to conserve wild tulips. There is no profit involved in their work, they are solely supported by grants and public donations. Donating to a cause that really means something to you is a good way to help.
Finally, with regards to climate change it is important to realize that we are in a crisis. We need to push for more action both democratically as well as on an individual level too.
You have been growing species tulips in your own garden – are they easy to cultivate (any tips or gardening disasters?!)
Surprisingly some wild species are very easy to grow. A range are suited to the climate of the U.K. and other temperate areas of the world with similar weather and require very little maintenance at all. I personally grow some of the easier species, Tulipa clusiana and Tulipa orphanidea, both of which are quite tolerant of damp soil and frost. There are of course many other species that are much harder to grow and need a lot of maintenance if you are exceptionally keen for a challenge. Generally, the key is providing soil that is relatively well draining, so either mixing grit in with your soil or sand and providing a position in the garden where they will get lots of sunlight in Spring. Importantly, the bulbs require a cold period in the winter to trigger growth. Just give it a go, it is all a learning process. I am unsure whether my tulips will return next year, but that is part of the excitement! However, for me the challenge is learning as much as we can to ensure we can protect these important spring flowers for future generations to study, grow, and enjoy.
Brett Wilson is a PhD student working with CUBG Curator Sam Brockington.
This project brought together researchers from a range of institutions interested in the conservation of tulips and was born out of a collaboration between the National Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic (NASKR), Fauna & Flora International (FFI), and Cambridge University Botanic Garden (CUBG) with a view of utilising the national collection maintained in Cambridge, field expeditions, and conservation experience to research tulip diversity and consequently inform more effective conservation activities in Central Asia, primarily Kyrgyzstan.
The collaboration was formalised through the establishment of a PhD project, which FFI part fund. The curator of the Botanic Garden, Dr. Sam Brockington, primarily supervises this PhD. Dr. Colin Clubbe, the head of conservation at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, is a secondary supervisor connecting the national tulip collection held at Kew with the project.
CUBG, FFI, and the NASKR established a Darwin funded project targeted at protecting tulip habitat in Kyrgyzstan, which the PhD work also feeds into. Benjamin Burgess, a PhD student based at University College London, acted as a collaborator on this paper due to his interest and experience in ecological modelling.