How to recognise it
The virus breaks the natural colour of the tulip, adding splashes, spots or stripes. Irregular purple markings can occur on the stem and leaves may show a mottled appearance, more so if held up to the light. It can affect just one bulb or several in a group.
Why it’s a problem
Infection by the virus will result in a slight reduction in the size of the flowers and in the height of the stem. The plant will become less vigorous and is likely to eventually die.
Where you are likely to find it
It can occur on any plant of the Tulipa genus, although it is more likely to be found on later blooming tulips (this is likely due to the increase in aphid numbers to spread the virus later in spring).
How to prevent it
The virus is spread primarily by vectors such as aphids. Therefore reducing any aphid infestations will reduce the likelihood of infection.
How to get rid of it
Once infected the bulb will remain infected, along with any offsets it produces.
Is it good for anything?!
As early as the 17th century the effects of the virus were noticed (although not understood) and horticulturalists deliberately bred from infected plants to obtain the colourful effects. This has produced some beautiful cultivars. They are rarely bred today and when grown they are kept at least 25m away from other tulips to prevent the spread of the disease.
Other useful information
Flowers which have been affected are known as ‘broken’ or ‘rectified’. However, not all broken tulips are caused by this virus; ‘Olympic Flame’, ‘Sorbet’ and ‘Union Jack’ being examples.
In the 18th century D.H. Cause described the effect of the tulip breaking virus as follows: “experience has shown that an affected bulb produces a flower more beautiful than before and shortly afterwards dies as if it had used its last strength to please its owner”.