How did wild lavender reach the Low Countries

Photo: wild tulips on a manor in Friesland. credit: Martinstate . Foundation

Tulips are not native to northern and western Europe. Diplomats and travelers brought the plant from the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Tulips became so popular, that a real tulip craze broke out. But one species, the wild lily, has an entirely different story to tell.

To find out how this species got to northern Europe, Anastasia Stefanaki and her colleague Tendy van Andel searched the archives. Stefanaki, a botanist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wageningen, reviewed 16th-century manuscripts, botanical texts, and correspondence from that time.

Historical records indicate that wild tulips originally came from southern France and northern Italy, not from the Ottoman Empire like other varieties. †Botanists share tulip bulbs and care tips† For example, the Italian botanist Aldrovandi sent lily bulbs from Italy to his colleague Carolus Clausius. He was first appointed by the imperial court in Vienna and then took the lamps to Leiden. All of these puzzle pieces from their writing together chart the path the wild tulip traveled from southern Europe to the Low Countries.

Stefanaki’s research is pre-publication, because sifting through ancient documents is only the first part of research into the origin Tulipa sylvestris† Stefanaki is currently working on a genetic analysis of wild lily to determine whether data from the plants’ DNA supports the historical story. We collected DNA from wild tulips in countries of origin, such as Italy and France, but also from places in northern Europe where the plant was introduced and has since been wild. We also have material from historical collections and herbariums, such as those at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. The lily contains an extensive genome in which many repeats occur. We hope to find information hidden precisely in that repetitive part of a plant’s DNA.

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Stefanaki, through her research into the wild lily’s travel pathway, hopes to untangle the taxonomy of species. Because there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the classification of wild lily, Stefanaki says. Some say the wild tulips from the Mediterranean and those above the Alps are different species, others see them as subspecies. There are many morphological differences, which makes classification difficult. Hopefully genetic research will provide an answer.

Watercolors from the famous collection Libri Picturati depicting Tulipa Sylvestris of Montpellier in southern France. This watercolor was used as a woodcut model in the first scientific description of Tulipa sylvestris, published by the famous Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens in 1568. Image credit: Jagiellonian Library, Krakow.

The wild lily is not only the only type of tulip that has been introduced to our area via a different route, it is also the only tulip that has managed to escape from gardens and parks. Meanwhile, the species is so well established that it has earned the name “wild” lavender. Or is it still weird?

An issue of definition, according to Stefanaki. Strictly speaking, the plants that arrived here after 1500 are considered precursors. However, wild lavender has now been fully naturalized in Belgium and the Netherlands. Lavender may not be botanically original, but it has definitely become a staple of wildflowers.

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