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Mad About Tulips

How Their Beguiling Beauty Led to a Financial Crisis in 17th-Century Holland

By Ilene Dube

“The tulips are too excitable,” wrote Sylvia Plath from a hospital bed where she’d been given a bouquet to help her recover from an appendectomy. They are “too red in the first place, they hurt me.… The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals.”

For Emily Dickinson, the tulip “put on her carmine suit.”

Erica Jong wrote:

Mother, you are far away and claim
In mournful letters that I do not need you;
Yet here in this sunny room, your tulips
Devour me, sucking hungrily.

Rare is the poet who hasn’t lavished the bell-shaped flowers with words.

Despite their effect on us, tulips are only the third most popular flower in the world, according to facts.net, after roses and chrysanthemums.

But several hundred years ago, the fever for tulips unleashed mass hysteria, resulting in a financial crash. People sold businesses, mortgaged homes, and invested life savings in flower futures. It has been compared to the cryptocurrency frenzy.

Tulip mania, as it was called, struck Holland between 1634 and 1637.

Flora or Saskia as Flora, a 1634 oil-on-canvas painting by Rembrandt depicting his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh as the goddess Flora. (Wikipedia)

The variety Semper Augustus, intricately feathered in red and white, changed hands for 10,000 guilders at the height of the mania, or what one would have paid for “one of the grandest canal houses in Amsterdam,” writes Michael Pollan in his 2001 classic The Botany of Desire (Random House). The thesis of that book is how plants — tulips, apples, potatoes, and cannabis — captivate us with their charms, rendering us servants in their efforts to be fruitful and multiply. “Though we self-importantly regard domestication as something people have done to plants, it is at the same time a strategy in which the plants have exploited us and our desires — even our idiosyncratic notions of beauty — to advance their own interests,” writes Pollan.

Why did so many pay more than the price of diamonds for this delicate flower? “The modern tulip has become such a cheap and ubiquitous commodity that it’s hard for us to get a sense of the glamour that once surrounded it,” Pollan says. “Among flowers, the tulip is one of the most extravagantly useless.”

Unlike other flowers, tulips are bereft of scent. Pollan calls the tulip an introvert among its kind, “petals curling inward to hide its sexual organs.”

By the early 17th century, the Dutch Republic was one of the richest countries in Europe, with Amsterdam its most important city. The era saw the rapid establishment of the Dutch diamond industry and a stock exchange that funded the foundation of the wildly successful Dutch East India Company.

The growing Dutch population was packed into a small country where land for houses and gardens was at a premium. The 17th-century Dutch were looking for ways to display their wealth, as well as to increase it. The tulip became the vehicle for these ambitions.

Because of their long-lasting blooms, tulips are said to symbolize enduring love. Often the first flower children learn to draw, tulips come in colors right out of the Crayola box — except for blue. Red evokes feelings of passion, love, and lust; orange is for spiritual connection; yellow is happiness, cheerfulness, and hope; white is for sympathy; purple for royalty; and “nothing says congratulations like pink,” according to 1-800-Flowers. 

Detail from a floral still life by Hans Bollongier, 1639. (Wikipedia)

Flower of Ill-Fated Lovers

The story of the tulip — with its mystery, intrigue, and triumph — really begins in Ottoman Turkey, where they were first cultivated around the year 1000. Under the rule of Mehmet II, tulips were among the country’s three classic flowers — the rose, hyacinth, and carnation — and appeared on many public buildings and structures. In fact, tulips get their name from a Persian word for turban. When in full bloom, the flowers do look like little turbans.

By the 11th century, the flower had become a motif in Omar Khayyam’s poetry, connecting the flower with ideals of feminine beauty. In Nizami Ganjavi’s 12th century romance, tulips sprang from the blood of ill-fated lovers. Farhad, a sculptor, falls in love with Shirin, the princess of Persian Armenia. But Shirin is already in love with Khosrow Parviz, the king of Persia. Khosrow asks Farhad to carve a staircase in a mountain and tells him if he manages to do so, Khosrow will give up Shirin. Farhad builds the staircase, but Khosrow has a messenger falsely inform Farhad that Shirin has died. Farhad believes the falsehood and jumps to his death from the mountain. Bright red tulips spring from his blood. (Never mind what Shirin may have wanted.)

The earliest surviving illustrations of tulips were discovered on tiles from the palace of Alāad-Dīn Kayqubād bin Kaykāvūs, who reigned over Persia from 1220 to 1237. The flower remains a national symbol of Iran.

Tulips were introduced to Europe by the emperor to the sultan of Turkey, who sent the first bulbs to Vienna in 1554. The flowers could indicate the wealth and status of an artist’s patron. Unlike any flowers seen before in Europe, tulips became a luxury item for aristocracy and the wealthy.

Botanist Conrad Gesner was the first person to describe tulips in Western Europe. Gesner saw the flowers in 1559 in Augsburg, Bavaria, at the garden of a man named Counsellor Herwart, who was known for his collection of rare plants. It’s unclear how Herwart got his flowers, but there are records that show tulip bulbs were sent to Europe along with bales of cloth and other goods in the mid 16th century.

A tulip, known as “the Viceroy” (viseroij), displayed in the 1637 Dutch catalog Verzameling van een Meenigte Tulipaanen. (Wikipedia)

Their popularity grew in 1593 when the Flemish botanist Carolus Clausius planted a collection of bulbs at University of Leiden’s Botanical Gardens in Leiden, Netherlands. Clausius, a one-time director of the Imperial Botanical Garden in Vienna, is credited with the introduction of fritillaries, irises, hyacinths, anemones, ranunculi, narcissi, and lilies.

More than 20 years before tulip mania took hold in Holland, the French had their own craze for tulips. Pierre Belon, a French explorer, collected examples of the “Lils Rouge,” a scentless flower he first described during travels in Turkey. He noted how Turkish people displayed single cut blossoms in vases and even wore them as items of personal adornment, remarking that many Turks tucked a flower into their turbans.

As French adoration of the flower burgeoned, a miller was said to have exchanged his mill, and thus his livelihood, for a single bulb. A groom happily accepted a striking double red-and-white striped tulip in lieu of a dowry; this variety was later dubbed Mariage de ma Fille, which translates to “My Daughter’s Wedding.”

Valued as fine jewels, they were pinned by noblewomen into their décolletage. As a tulip breeding industry grew in France, the flower moved from its prized place in a woman’s cleavage to strictly regimented beds in formal gardens. For a time French breeders dominated the tulip trade, but political upheaval and the growing importance of Dutch breeders eclipsed the French trade.

Professional growers stepped in, followed by middlemen who often bought and sold bulbs without ever seeing them bloom. Often, no physical bulbs or tulips were actually sold, the trading instead occurred with a “futures contract” — a piece of paper guaranteeing the right to specific bulbs that would be blooming in the coming spring.

Many florists were middle class artisans, farmers, and tradesmen. They saw the futures market as a get-rich-quick scheme.

The financial bubble was based on growers placing a higher and higher value on bulbs, especially if they contained feathered colors. Although it wasn’t fully understood until the 1920s, after the invention of the electron microscope, multicolored tulips required a virus that splits the pigment of the petals. The virus was spread by the peach potato aphid from nearby peach trees. Unknowing growers tried sprinkling them with everything from paint powders to pigeon droppings and plaster dust, in order to achieve the effect.

But it was the diseased tulips, emblazoned with distinctive patterns, that became prized. The red-and-white striped tulip known as the Semper Augustus was the most expensive.

A 19th-century painting depicting tulip mania by Johannes Hinderikus Egenberger. (Wikipedia)

“A Greater Fool No Longer To Be Found”

Tulip mania peaked in the winter of 1637, but even before then the market was showing signs of strain. One day, at a tavern in Haarlem, a florist offered some bulbs at a reasonable price. There were no takers. He dropped the price, but still got no bidders. He cut his price again, to no avail. The crash had begun. Suddenly, across the republic, sellers far outnumbered buyers and the market collapsed. The tulip fell into such disfavor that a prominent botanist was seen beating at the blossoms when he came upon them in Leiden.

“In all of Holland a greater fool was no longer to be found,” writes Pollan.

The broken tulips that Dutch collectors and speculators so valued can’t be raised in large quantities from seed. (Tulips do not come true from seed.) Instead, they must be propagated by bulb division. This process builds healthy bulb stock but yields only small increases for the diseased bulbs that produced Dutch treasures like Semper Augustus or Viceroy. Nonetheless, with time, even the rarest bulbs had become more common, a factor that also contributed to the crash.

Today, the only way to see these botanical beauties is in 17th-century Dutch still life paintings and portraits with tulips.

(Shutterstock.com)

U-Pick

In the Princeton area, tulip lovers can enjoy picking, strolling, and taking pictures at two large farms.

Holland Ridge is a 300-acre farm in Cream Ridge with 8 million tulips in bloom and bills itself as the biggest u-pick tulip farm in the U.S.

The Jansen family has been in the tulip industry for more than 100 years. Great Opa Casey was a bulb grower and seller in Holland. He taught his son Casey Sr., who came to the U.S. as a teenager and started a tulip business. In turn he taught his son Casey Jr. the tricks of the trade. Together they grow and sell millions of fresh-cut tulips to customers across the country (hollandridgefarms.com).

Dalton Farms is a 99-acre, family-owned farm and its tulip season begins March 30. There are more than 150 species with 3,000 varieties of tulips on site (daltonfarms.com/tulips).

Every spring, thousands of visitors flock to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., for the tulip display. Longwood Gardens’ “Spring Blooms” display was named the 2019 Tulip Display of the Year by the World Tulip Society. Depending on weather, peak bloom is expected at the end of April/early May (longwoodgardens.org).

(Shutterstock.com)

Edible – But Palatable?

Though prized for their ornamental value, tulips have questionable culinary appeal.

“The Germans boiled and sugared the bulbs and, unconvincingly, declared them a delicacy,” writes Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire. “The English tried serving them up with oil and vinegar. Pharmacists proposed the tulip as a remedy for flatulence. None of these uses caught on.”

The petals are used as garnishes and may be edible if not treated with toxic pesticides, according to BloomEffects.com. The taste has been compared to beans and lettuce — not exactly a rave review. Some substitute tulips for onions although others report toxicity, and tulips can cause allergic reactions in those susceptible.

Before partaking, you may want to consider that the tradition of eating tulip bulbs originated during times of famine in the last year of World War II. During the winter of 1944-45, a freeze fell over the Netherlands. Nazi troops still occupied the country and enforced strict food rationing and restrictions on farming as a form of punishing the Dutch for the government’s non-compliance. The combination of a harsh, prolonged winter and limited food supply sent the country into severe famine. Tulips were a last resort. 

According to a native plant botanist who gave a talk on foraging wild foods, the tastiest and safest foods can be found on your grocery store’s shelves.

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