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Many viruses affect tulips, causing streaked flowers, mottled leaves, distorted plants and stunted growth.
Tulip infected with a virus. Image: RHS, Horticultural Science
There are at least 12 viruses that infect tulips, causing a range of symptoms, which are seen when the tulips have grown leaves in spring and early summer.
The six most important are:
For more on how these viruses are transmitted, see the Biology section below.
You may see the following symptoms:
Very little can be done to control viruses in gardens, especially those that are vectored by soil inhabiting organisms such as nematodes or Olpidium (a fungal root pathogen). The gardener’s best defence is to ensure that the bulbs come from a reputable source. Affected plants should be destroyed to prevent the spread to other tulips and other plants (some of the viruses discussed above have very wide host ranges among garden plants).
There are no chemical controls. The use of insecticides to reduce aphid transmission is not practical.
There are no chemical soil sterilants available to home gardeners for control of nematodes or Olpidium.
Plant viruses share many of the characteristics of those that infect animals, though they do not cross infect (plant viruses only infect plants). Viruses are extremely minute and consist of a protein coat and a core of nucleic acid. They have no means of self-dispersal, but rely on various vectors to transmit them from infected to healthy plants. Once viruses penetrate into the plant cells they take over the cells’ nucleic acid and protein synthesis systems and hijack them to produce more virus. They then require another vector to feed on the infected tissue and carry them to a new host.
Other viruses may be vectored by other insects, mites or by mechanical transmission on pruning tools.
Tulip breaking virus (TBV) had an important role in 'tulipomania', which affected the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. The break patterns in affected bulbs were highly prized and sellers commanded huge prices. Unfortunately, the effect was often not stable and affected bulbs did not repeat the patterns reliably in future years. Tulip varieties with these patterns are available today, but the breaks result from stable genetic mutation and not virus infection. The English florists' tulips are an exception, in which the flower breaks still result from infection with TBV and are remarkably stable, although these plants are seldom available for sale.
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