When the word tulip is mentioned people automatically respond with the Netherlands, but in fact tulips were originally a wild flower native to Central Asia and did not arrive in Europe until the late sixteenth century. Historians believe that the tulips we know and love today started their journey west from the Black Sea and the steppes north of the Caucasus with the Turks during their many military campaigns in the region. The word tulip may actually have originated as a mistranslation of the Turkish word for turban. By the time tulips arrived in Europe, sent home to Vienna in 1554 by Ogier Ghiselain de Busbecq, the then Ambassador of the Austrian Empire to the Ottoman Court, they had been cultivated in Turkey for over 500 years. Once seen by Europeans however, a love affair unprecedented at any other time in history began. Tulips suddenly became one of the most sought after luxury items and quickly replaced gold as the most precious trading commodity.
The tulip’s association with the Dutch officially started in 1593 when then renowned botanist Carolus Clusius resigned his position as Imperial Gardener in Vienna and moved to the University of Leiden to become Head Botanist at the innovative hortus botanicus, botanical gardens. Clusius brought with him tulip seeds and bulbs and initiated an aggressive program of tulip cultivation and hybridization which produced a variety of new colour variations. Of particular interest was the production of multi-coloured varieties such as Semper Augustus which was an eye-catching white with red flames. To this point only solid-coloured tulips had been seen. The increasing availability of more seed stock, and these new emerging exotic varieties, had an immediate two-fold effect on the Dutch economy.
By the early 1630’s flower growers in Holland had begun to raise huge quantities of single-coloured tulips, thus beginning the Netherlands’ march into history as the largest commercial producer and exporter of tulip bulbs, currently estimated at about 2 billion bulbs per year worth approximately $330 million Canadian in 2019. It was rumoured that even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson imported Dutch tulips for their gardens and were influential in their introduction into the American Colonies.
By 1634, the desire to own the newly developed multi-coloured varietals, viewed as still very rare and therefore a sign of high social status, had set off an economic speculative frenzy that makes recent fluctuations in the stock market look modest. “Tulipomania” as it is now known, raged in Holland from 1634 to 1637 during which time promissory notes, guaranteeing the future delivery of tulip bulbs, still maturing in the ground, changed hands at a frenzied pace with each transaction dramatically increasing the price. As traders in these notes were making huge profits, it was not long until the general public was involved and people started to sell their furnishings, homes and businesses to participate. In 1637 one bulb was reported to have sold for 5,200 guilders. For comparison, a flourishing Dutch merchant’s annual income at the time was about 3,000 guilders. Like most crazes however, Tulipomania came to an abrupt and, for some, a very unhappy end. In the spring of 1637 the economic bubble burst when traders, fearing that prices and demand could climb no higher, dumped their bulbs on the market thus creating the first and last “tulip bulb crash”. Many who were holding the now worthless bulbs, lost everything.
Fortunately for us today tulips still command our attention and affection but can be purchased for very reasonable prices. Thanks to Clusius and his descendants, we now have 15 groups of tulips to choose from containing hundreds of colours, flower shapes and blooming times. They say that money does not buy happiness, but the twenty dollars I spent last September in the tulip bulb section of the garden centre will certainly put a smile on my face when April arrives.
Beverley is a member of the Bowness Garden Club. They are a group of new to experienced gardeners who just love growing plants. If you are interested in becoming a member of our garden club, or would just like more information, please contact Anne Campbell at email@example.com or 403-288-3295.