The Full Story
Tulips are ornamental flowers with thousands of varieties contained within more than 50 species. Tulips are grown from bulbs, which are like seeds that typically have been maturing for at least 2 years. Tulips are honored in annual festivals all over the world including Turkey, India, the Netherlands, and several US states. Although tulips are associated with vast fields and windmills in the Netherlands, they originated in western Asia. They were eventually cultivated in Turkey and then imported to the Netherlands in the late 1500s.
There are fantastic accounts of tulips impacting the economy of the Netherlands; stories of people swept up in "tulipmania" making and losing great wealth by buying and selling tulips bulbs. These stories have been judged to be overblown cautionary tales, but they served as the basis for the recent movie "Tulip Fever."
Tulip bulbs look like onions and are unintentionally eaten because of this similarity. They have been intentionally eaten during times of famine. Based on World War II era stories, boiling and eating fewer than 5 tulip bulbs per day only caused mild GI effects in adults. In 1978, however, 6 adults in Yugoslavia ate a goulash prepared with 5 tulip bulbs (purposefully substituted for onions) and developed an array of symptoms: vomiting, nausea, shortness of breath, weakness, increased salivation, feeling warm, sweating, and heart palpitations. All symptoms resolved within a few days except for weakness reported for up to 5 days. Tulips should not be considered food.
"Tulip fingers" is an irritating rash that can occur in people who handle tulips for work or pleasure. It is also called "tulip itch" and "tulip nail." A chemical called tuliposide is responsible for this reaction. It is found mostly in the outer layers of tulip bulbs. Tuliposide is found in other plants, but it was discovered in tulips. Tuliposide is changed in the skin to tulipalin A, which causes the skin to become sensitized–think of this like developing an allergy. After repeated exposures, the skin's reactions get worse and a painful rash can occur. The top of the fingers and beginning of the nail beds become very irritated and eventually the nails might separate from the nail beds and become brittle. This reaction will heal within a few days, but future contact with tulips can cause the effects to return. Wearing nitrile gloves (not latex) while handling tulips will protect the skin and will prevent "tulip fingers." Some people do not react to tulips at all, even after many exposures.
If you are worried about a tulip exposure, check the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. Whether you log on or call, expert assistance is available 24 hours a day.
Pela Soto, PharmD, BSHS, BS
Certified Specialist in Poison Information
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