Tulip-o-mania, or tulpenmanie in Dutch, both made and lost fortunes in the seventeenth century.
Tulips are still one of the most popular spring flowering bulbs. In Holland, obviously, but also in Britain and North America.
There can be some overlap in flowering time between later flowering daffodils and earlier flowering tulips. But by the time we reach early May, the tulip has most definitely taken centre stage.
No wonder the invasion of exotic tulips created a fever of botanical mayhem. There had been nothing like tulips before they arrived.
Originally a native of Turkey, tulips were feted and fought over for a time in seventeenth century Holland. The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a wave of new pants introduced from Turkish Empire, including tulips, but also hyacinths, lilies and cyclamen.
The tulip had become popular by the turn of the turn of the seventeenth century. John Tradescant the Elder, gardener to the Duke of Buckingham and Earl of Salisbury, brought back tulips from one of his plant collecting expeditions in 1611 specifically for the Earl to grow at Hatfield House.
Tulip-o-mania, or tulpenmanie in Dutch, both made and lost fortunes. At its height of popularity in the mid 1630s, the tulip bulb had become the fourth largest export of the Netherlands after gin, herring and cheese. At one point, the price of a single bulb cost fifteen years’ worth of an Amsterdam bricklayer’s wages.
Tulip Semper Augustus – puportedly the most expensive tulip in the seventeenth century Netherlands.
Why the tulip in particular caused such frenzy has not yet been agreed upon. Possibly the flower’s ability to offer a wide range of flower colours within a single cultivar is one reason. Add in the growing economic power of urban merchants in a newly independent country with a need to show this off and reasons begin to suggest themselves.
Interestingly, despite its becoming a rich man’s flower-to-have, the tulip does not get a mention from Shakespeare.
Even after the end of the manic period of tulip popularity in Western Europe, tulips remained fashionable. Indeed, many bulbs were still very expensive, remaining out of the reach of the ‘ordinary’ person until the nineteenth century.
Tulip virus and colourful petals
The virus that causes tulips to ‘break’ that is, causes the colour variation, was not known in the seventeenth century. However, the early tulip imports and their offspring were much prized for this trait. Once a tulip bulb has been infected, the offsets retain the colour variation of the parent and these tulips often commanded the highest prices.
The tulip virus was caused by an aphid, the peach potato aphid (Myzus persicae) being one of the most effective. This aphid thrives in warm conditions among fruit trees and was prevalent in the peach orchards of the Turkish Empire. In Europe too, fruit trees were a popular feature of the formal gardens into which the tulips were imported, so it is no surprise that the virus remained to ‘break’ the tulips into new forms and colours.
The Ottoman Empire continued the craze for tulips, with the early eighteenth century Lale devri being particularly notable. These Turkish tulips had dagger shaped petals, more like the native species and lily flowered tulips we know today.
Ottoman art flowered during this period (pun intended!) and tulips appeared in illustrations and poetry.
The tulip is still considered the epitome of beauty in Turkey, and it certainly adds an elegant touch or a fun side to our spring gardens.
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