Meaning and Symbolism of Tulips

“According to ancient Persian legend,” says author Lucia Impelluso, “the tulip was born of the blood and tears of a girl who had ventured into the desert in search of her lover. It thereafter became a symbol of love.”

Why Are Roses Red?
Why Are Roses Red?

Tulips have a long and diverse history of meanings in art and literature, especially in Iran, Turkey and Holland. According to Islamic tradition, when the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Hussein, was slain in battle in the deserts of Karbala, tulips sprang up from his blood.

In Iran, tulips, called lale, have a special association with martyrdom. One adorns the national flag used since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. In addition to their connection with political and religious sacrifice, the flower is used to celebrate the new year in spring.

In Turkish art, tulips are associated with paradise, and were a common motif in decorative arts like tiles and textiles during the Ottoman Empire. They symbolize beauty, as well as perfection. They were also thought to have the power to ward off evil because of their connection to Allah.

In her book Nature and Its Symbols, Impelluso traces the history of tulips in Dutch art and imagery. She says that in Holland, the Dutch tulip craze of the 1630s gave the tulip a particular association with wealth and beauty. The tulip especially appears “in many vanitas paintings, still lifes on the theme of the transience of earthly possession in the face of death.”

One of the many reasons tulips have had such staying power in artistic imaginations is because of their many vibrant colours. If you want to know what each tulip colour symbolizes, here’s a brief run-down. Keep scrolling to the end to read some of our favourite quotes about tulips.

Black Tulips Meaning and Symbolism

almost black tulip - meaning and symbolism of tulips

Black tulips are extremely rare. They can signify mystery, as well as strength and power. Alexandre Dumas’ historical novel The Black Tulip features the quest for a true black tulip, giving the flower connotations of perfect love and achievement, but also darker associations with obsession, envy and injustice.

Orange Tulips Meaning and Symbolism

Orange tulips, like their yellow cousins, mean cheerfulness, happiness and hope. They’re a warm colour and are associated with warm feelings. They’re said to represent connections between romantic partners, whether that’s a spiritual connection, a special understanding or just a sense of gratitude for that other person.

Symbolism and Meaning of Blue Tulips

One fun fact about tulips is that they don’t actually come in blue. A true blue tulip is the grail of some tulip breeders, although it’s so far eluded them. When you come across a bluish tulip, you could give it the same meanings as other blue flowers carry: serenity, peace, calm and trust.

Queen of the Night Tulip Meaning and Symbolism

Queen of the Night tulips can appear to be a deep maroon, or even black, depending on the light. This gives them an association with mystery and intrigue, as well as rarity. Their dramatic hues can give off an aura of prestige, of unique beauty and of being drawn to the darker sides of life.

Purple Tulips Meaning and Symbolism

Purple flowers in general are historically associated with royalty and the upper classes. Purple dyes were expensive and until the creation of cheaper synthetic dyes, only the wealthy wore that colour. Purple tulips have kept that association with class, symbolizing elegance as well as nobility, prosperity as well as luxury and extravagance.

Pink Tulip Meaning and Symbolism

The meaning of pink tulips is similar to the meaning of pink roses. They symbolize love, but not necessarily the passionate love of a red tulip. Think more like the love you might have for friends and family. They’re associated with care, affection, and wishing someone the best. They can also symbolize a love that’s just beginning.

Symbolism and Meaning of Red Tulips

A red tulip was given as a declaration of love in the Victorian language of flowers. Nowadays, red tulips are still commonly used as a gesture of romantic love. In Islamic tradition, red tulips signify passionate love, but also martyrdom and sacrifice. The name lale derives from the Persian word for red.

Lavender Tulips Meaning and Symbolism

Lavender flowers are often used in weddings and showers as a symbol of grace and beauty. Their pastel hue gives lavender tulips an association with delicacy and refinement, as well as charm. Lavender is an important symbol of LGBTQIA2S+ communities, where it celebrates overcoming oppression.

White Tulips Meaning and Symbolism

Like many white flowers, white tulips have associations with purity, new phases in life and new beginnings. They’ve been connected to concepts of honour and respect and can also signify forgiveness. They’re also often used as funeral flowers to represent rebirth; a new spiritual journey for the deceased.

Spiritual Meaning of Tulips

Impelluso says that according “to some scholars, the tulip can be understood as a symbol of divine love, because it dies if kept away from the sun.”

The 11th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam may have been the first to make this association in literature. In The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam he writes:

As then the Tulip for her morning sup

Of Heav’nly Vintage from the soil looks up,

Do you devoutly do the like, till Heav’n

To Earth invert you—like an empty Cup.

Sam Segal and Klara Alen tell us that in Europe, the 16th-century German botanist Joachim Camerarius furthered this association by giving the tulip the motto “I wither when the sun is hidden” in his work on the symbolism of herbs and plants.

In European art, tulips came to symbolize a faithful heart open to God, but also the fleetingness of worldly luxuries, especially during the tulip craze.

In Turkish Islamic culture, the word lale “possesses orthographic and onomatopoeic similarities to the word Allah,” says art historian Valerie Behiery. That, alongside a numerological connection, has made the tulip “an object of spiritual meditation.”

Quotes about Tulips

close up of two red tulips - meaning and symbolism of tulips

“How can you be content to be in the world like tulips in a garden, to make a fine show, and be good for nothing.”―Mary Astell

“Here are the tulips,

budded and full-blown,

their swoops and dips, their gloss and poses,

the satin of their darks.”

―Margaret Atwood

“If a purple tulip could talk she would say something calm, cool and wise, without the flash of a soothing balm.”—Amelia Brown

“And tulips, children love to stretch

Their fingers down, to feel in each

Its beauty’s secret nearer.”

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“‘Mid the sharp, short emerald wheat, scarce

risen three fingers well,

The wild tulip at end of its tube, blows out

its great red bell,

Like a thin clear bubble of blood, for the

children to pick and sell.”

—Robert Browning

“When tulip mania dies down, all that remains are pretty flowers.”—Adam Cohen

“Bring the tulip and the rose,

While their brilliant beauty glows.”

—Eliza Cook

“Daffodils, blossom and tulips jostle to the front of the stage in April. I love these early perennials: they may be more modest but they nearly all have that one special quality that a plant needs to transform your affections from admiration to affection—charm.”—Monty Don

“Contempt for flowers is an offense against God. The lovelier the flower, the greater the offense in despising it. The tulip is the loveliest of all flowers. So whoever despised the tulip offends God immeasurably.”—Alexandre Dumas

“Tulips were a tray of jewels.”—E.M. Forster

“The tulip is a courtly quean,

Whom, therefore, I will shun…”

—Thomas Hood

“Not one of Flora’s brilliant race

A form more perfect can display;

Art could not feign more simple grace,

Nor Nature take a line away.

Yet, rich as morn of many a hue,

When flushing clouds through darkness strike,

The tulip’s petals shine in dew,

All beautiful, — but none alike.”

—James Montgomery

“Like tulip-beds of different shape and dyes, bending beneath the invisible west-wind’s sighs.”—Thomas Moore

“He thought of the grammar of Gaelic, in which you did not say you were in love with someone, but that you “had love toward” her, as if it were a physical thing you could present and hold—a bundle of tulips, a golden ring, a parcel of tenderness.”—Jodi Picoult

“Although by any conventional measure it is folly to pay thousands for a tulip bulb (or for that matter an Internet stock), as long as there is an even greater fool out there willing to pay even more, doing so is the most logical thing in the world.”—Michael Pollan

“Snow is both sides of the same page

It covers the grave and the tulip.”

―Richard L. Ratliff

“If your face has become saffron pale through death,

Become a dweller among tulip beds and Judas trees.

Maybe you are searching in the branches

for what only appears in the roots…”

―Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

“And in the end, love tastes like Tulips having rain tea in a colored cup.”―Fathima Shamla

“I set out to find my peace in the skies and the tulips, in the howling of the winds, in the rain under the shed and it was right there residing within me.”―Suyasha Subedi

“I love tulips better than any other spring flower; they are the embodiment of alert cheerfulness and tidy grace…”—Elizabeth von Arnim

“A tulip doesn’t strive to impress anyone. It doesn’t struggle to be different than a rose. It doesn’t have to. It is different. And there’s room in the garden for every flower.”—Marianne Williamson

Feature image: Alexandr Popadin; Image 1: Jean Jones; Image 2: Daniel Spase

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