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A Tulip History
title graphic

by Ray Allen

tulip
The tulips - wildflowers that evolved into a billion dollar business!

This story does not start in Holland, but it does end there. In simplest terms, tulips are from Central Asia. And daffodils are from Spain and Portugal. Certainly, few flowers have been more intensely “worked on” than these.

Many bulb flowers, now all developed, produced, and exported from Holland, are native to other far-flung corners of the earth. In fact, Holland is no bulb’s ancestral home. Wild dahlias come from Mexico. Amaryllis is native to South America. Freesias and Callas come from South Africa. And most of the species or “wild” lilies are from China, Japan, and North America. It’s important to understand that many of the original wild forms of these famous flowers look nothing like the garden flowers that mostly Dutch hybridizers have created from them. It’s a fascinating story, unknown by most wildflower enthusiasts. Most of the true “wild” forms of these bulbs are still available, but with all the clamor and glamour of the hybrids, the wild ones are sometimes hard to find.

Tulip bakeri
“Lilac Wonder,” Tulipa bakeri is native to the Greek Island of Crete.
Tulip clusiana
“Peppermint Stick,” T. clusiana var chrysantha is native to the mountains
of Northern Afghanistan, and grows about 13” tall.
Tulip bakeri
"Tarda," T. Tarda is one of the most important native species used in hybridizing, from Central Asia. Only 5 to 6” tall.

The Tulip, from dry hillsides to the Turkish court to Holland’s hybridizers and investors. There are about 150 species of “wild” tulips. Their ancestral region centers around the Pamir Alai and Tien-Shan Mountain Ranges near the modern-day Russian/Chinese border. They occur farther east into China, and west all the way to France and Spain, but most are from arid areas of Central Asia.

The Turks glorified tulips long before the Dutch. You may have heard that tulips “come from Turkey.” It would be more accurate to say that before the Europeans paid any attention, the early botanists of the great Ottoman Empire, also called the Turkish Empire, were very interested. In fact, the Turks were cultivating tulips as early as 1,000 AD. But their empire was far larger than modern-day Turkey. The tulips Europeans finally imported hail from areas that are now parts of Russia, around the Black Sea, the Crimea, and even the steppes north of the Caucasus, all parts of the ancient Ottoman Empire.

The Tale of the Tulip. A famous legend from Turkish lore tells of a handsome prince named Farhad who was stricken with love for the fair maid, Shirin. One day he heard that she had been killed, and in his grief, mounted his favorite horse and galloped over a cliff to his death. It is said that from each droplet of his bloom, a scarlet tulip sprang up, making the flower an historic symbol of perfect love.

During the glory of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultans celebrated the tulip, and the flowers became part of the trappings of wealth and power. One famous story tells of a Sultan who spent too much on a tulip festival which ultimately led to him “losing his head.” So well before the Dutch began their love affair with tulips, they were widely celebrated in their native lands. Today, the tulip is still the national flower of Turkey.

tulip
During the 1500s, early botanical drawings in Europe fueled the fire of interest in the tulip which eventually resulted in the notorious Dutch financial panic known as “Tulipomania.” At left is the famous Tulipa bononiensis which looks a lot like our “Red Emperor” tulips today. At center is an early botanical of what we now call “Rembrandt Tulips”.

The Tulip goes to Europe. During the 1500’s, Europeans became plant explorers, and began recording their findings. Beautiful botanical drawings of tulips began appearing in Europe, so beautiful, in fact, that they gained wide notice. One botanical rendering in particular, called Tulipa bononiensis, became very famous. Others showed the “flamed” tulips that were very exotic to the Europeans, and interest in these "new flowers" continued to grow. These were the multicolored blooms that today are called “Rembrandt” tulips, even though the famous Dutch painter never painted flowers. Other great Dutch painters did.

The main flow of the tulip story in Holland actually begins with a botanist named Carolus Clusius, working at the University of Leiden. He had worked in Prague and Vienna, mostly with medicinal herbs. But in 1593, he was appointed “Hortulanus”, the contemporary title for head botanist, at the University of Leiden’s now famous “Hortus”, the first botanical garden in Western Europe. However, his “tulip connection” actually began during his earlier projects in Vienna. There, Clusius had met a man called De Busbecq who was the ambassador to the court of the Sultan Suleiman in Constantinople, the seat of the Ottoman Empire. DeBusbecq gave Clusius some tulip bulbs from Central Asia, and he brought those bulbs with him to Holland. The rest, literally, is history.

Carolus Clusius
Carolus Clusius

Clusius was mostly interested in the tulip’s scientific importance, probably hoping to find medicinal uses for the bulbs. However, since people in Holland had seen the famous drawings, some became more interested in the flowers as money-makers for the developing ornamental floral trade. Clusius fueled the fire by being very secretive and protective with his bulbs, and after awhile, the public was so determined to have the tulips that some were even stolen from his gardens. This was the beginning of the famous “Tulipomania.”

Tulipomania. The famous rise and fall of the “great tulip craze.” Once a few bulbs got beyond the protective grasp of Clusius, they were considered very precious rarities. As a trade in the bulbs began, the prices began to rise. Through the early 1600’s the prices skyrocked as an actual trading market developed. As the hybrids became more and more glamorous, the limited supply of certain bulbs became highly prized by the rich, who ultimately, were willing to pay almost any price. By 1624, one tulip type, with only 12 bulbs available, was selling for 3000 guilders per bulb, the equivalent ot about $1500 today. (Imagine..and you can have a very similar “Rembrandt” tulip bulb now for about 50 cents!) Just a short time later, one famous sale is recorded for a single bulb going for the equivalent of $2250 plus a horse and carriage! It was an incredible bubble, and it was about to burst.

During the 1630s, the frenzy continued as notarized bills of sale were being issued for bulbs, fraud and speculation were rampant, and what always happens with financial “bubbles” happened. The crash came in 1637. Many rich traders became paupers overnight, and the prices finally settled at a much more practical level. Of course, all this did not reduce the real demand, the love of the sheer beauty of the flowers. So ever since those days, the enterprising Dutch have built one of the best organized production and export businesses in the world. Today, over nine billion flower bulbs are produced each year in Holland, and about 7 billion of them are exported, for an export value of three quarters of a billion dollars. According to the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center, the USA is the biggest importer of Dutch bulbs, and in a recent year, $130,000,000 worth of Dutch bulbs (at wholesale) were imported.

For more on the tulip, click here for Floridata's Tulipa spp. Plant Profile.

by Ray Allen


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