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A Tiptoe through the Tulips

By Audrey Stallsmith

tulipa Gesneriana var. Dracontia

You are a tulip seen today,
But, dearest, of so short a stay
That where you grew scarce man can say.

Robert Herrick, "A Meditation for His Mistress"

Tulips are best known for the "mania" they inspired when they first hit Europe in the early 1600's. At the height of the frenzy, a single bulb of the most coveted "flamed" or "broken color" varieties could sell for the price of a house. In fact, the trade became so inflated and irrational that the bulbs were sold by the ounce, and often considered much too valuable to plant!

The tulip gained popularity much earlier in the Ottoman Empire, being grown there as early as 1000 AD. In fact, the flower is supposed to derive its name from the Turkish thoulypen ("turban"), and was sometimes known as Dalmation or Turk's Cap.

According to Persian legend, the tulip had its origins in the blood shed by a lover, and a red variety is still supposed to declare love to the recipient. Probably because of its later notoriety, the tulip itself stands for "fame," "luck," or "the perfect lover." A variegated bloom praises the recipient's "beautiful eyes," while a yellow type represents "hopeless love."

Writing in 1597, Gerard called the Dalmation Cap "a strange and forrein floure. . .with which all studious and painefull Herbarists desire to be better acquainted, because of that excellent diversitie of most brave floures which it beareth."

A Flemish ambassador to Constantinople named Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq originally brought some tulip bulbs back to Vienna with him in 1554. When the imperial gardener at Vienna, Carolus Clusius, moved to the Netherlands in 1593 to become head botanist at Leiden's Hortus, he took some of the bulbs along.

Although Clusius simply wanted to discover the tulip's medicinal value, others saw a potential money-maker in the novel blooms. When Clusius refused to sell any, the unscrupulous businessmen stole them.

Since only the wealthy could afford the rare flower, it quickly became a status symbol. One of the most coveted was the white and maroon "flamed" Semper Augustus, which routinely sold for thousands of guilders.

The broken stripes which made some tulips so unusual were actually caused by a virus. The only one of the original virused varieties known to be available today is the strawberry-and-cream Zomerschoon, which is supposed to date back to 1620.

The mania reached its peak between 1634 and 1637. By then, both rich men and poor were bidding on contracts for bulbs which hadn't even bloomed yet. This was known, scornfully, as "wind trading," and the tulip was beginning to be known as the "Fool's Cap!" Then, much like the overheated stock market of 1929, the boom crashed as abruptly as it had begun.

Many went bankrupt, and some could not even bear the sight of the flower thereafter. Evrard Forstius, a professor of botany at Leiden, is reported to have thrashed with his walking stick any tulip that he chanced to see!

The flowers are hard to ignore. In a poem called "Tulips," Sylvia Plath described them as "excitable." She added, "Before they came the air was calm enough/ Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss./ Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise."

The Dutch eventually came to terms with the flamboyant alien flower which had been both a blessing and a bane to them--and found a more enduring way to make a profit from it! Holland remains the main producer and exporter of tulips to this day. In fact, during World War II, many Dutch citizens survived by eating the bulbs.

The modern stiffly-upright varieties are said to be a far cry from their floppier forbears. Amy Lowell speaks of them "Marshalled like soldiers. . ./ Forward they come, with flaunting colors spread,/ With torches burning, stepping out in time/ To some quick unheard march. . ."

Today, there are at least 16 different classes of tulips, divided into three bloom periods: early, mid-season, and late. Unlike other more persistent spring flowers, most tulips will only flourish for a year or two. The exceptions to that rule are the species, Greiggi, Kaufmanniana, Fosteriana, and Darwin types, which can truly be called "perennial."

Although natives of Afghanistan sometimes eat tulipa montana for "strength," the flower never has achieved much of a medicinal reputation. But, then, it doesn't need one! Though now inexpensive enough to be purchased by us "peasants," the tulip's evanescent, glowing goblets of color will assure that it is cherished for generations to come.

Tulipa Gesneriana image is from Les Liliacees by P. J. Redoute, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.