Time of the Wild Tulip

As I write, new colors are bursting up around Poggio Casciano: the bright green grass that carpets the entire landscape, the countless shades of spring flowers, the roses budding on the bush and the almond trees lining the roadside, brimming with their white blossoms.

Here and there, certain round, graceful, bendy stems poke up above the vines, each sporting a single bell-shaped flower. These are wild tulips, a spontaneous species that grows among vineyards and olive groves. Despite its eighty-odd varieties, all of which are protected species, the wild tulip can be found only in a handful of Italian regions.

In recent decades, a combination of urbanization and the grape harvest, plus, fatally, the use of herbicides and pesticides, has decimated virtually all wild tulip populations. Winemakers have slowly but surely seen them disappear from their vineyards. The bulbs, which lie about half a meter deep in the soil, resist the yearly agricultural interventions, but do not escape the effect of pesticides, which cripple their reproduction.

Once upon a time, the flower was a secret of the Middle East, where it grew spontaneously. It crept into Turkey and thence to Europe: by 1554 it was in Vienna, Paris, London and the Holland. The word tulip comes from the Turkish tulbend, a reference to the typical muslin turbans that recall the form of the flower’s corolla.

The tulip has long exerted a powerful presence in myths and legends. One involves a young sculptor who fell in love with an Armenian princess. One day, his rival, the King of Persia, who was also besotted with the princess, falsely proclaimed her death, whereupon the grief-stricken young sculptor hurled himself off a cliff. Every drop of his blood that splattered the earth nourished a scarlet tulip, symbolic of his love.

This is just one example of how cultures – and there are many that do so – associate the tulip with love. It’s nice to think that here, among the thousands of vines that line our hillsides, Mother Nature is showing us the visible rewards of our daily efforts in the name of biodiversity. It’s as if the tulips are offered as a gesture of love, and to approve the fact that all the Ruffino estates, over the years, have introduced agricultural practices that treat the environment with the utmost respect. We have reduced our use of chemicals and increased soil fertility with organic manuring techniques and green manuring, all with the aim of making at least 40% of our vineyards organic by the end of 2021.

Some varieties of wild tulip can even be eaten. The bulbs make a good substitute for onions in a range of recipes, and in parts of Japan they are even dried and ground into flour. The petals have a flavor similar to lettuce, with a slightly spicy note thrown in. Try frying them with a bit of sage and pair the result with a glass of white wine.

The Tulip

She slept beneath a tree
Remembered but by me.
I touched her cradle mute;
She recognized the foot,
Put on her carmine suit, —
And see!


[Emily Dickinson]