Tulip (Tulipa gesneriana L.) is a bulbous plant species that requires a period of low temperature for proper growth and flowering. The mechanism of sensing the low temperature period is unknown. The study presented in this paper shows that the essential developmental change in tulip bulbs during cold treatment is an increase in sensitivity to the phytohormone auxin. This is demonstrated using a model system consisting of isolated internodes grown on tissue culture medium containing different combinations of the phytohormones auxin and gibberellin. Using mathematical modelling, equations taken from the field of enzyme kinetics were fitted through the data. By doing so it became apparent that longer periods of low temperature resulted in an increased maximum response at a lower auxin concentration. Besides the cold treatment, gibberellin also enhances the response to auxin in the internodes in this in vitro system. A working model describing the relationship between the cold requirement, gibberellin action and auxin sensitivity is put forward. Possible analogies with other cold‐requiring processes such as vernalization and stratification, and the interaction of auxin and gibberellin in the stalk elongation process in other plant species are discussed.