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The Tulip


Few ornamental plants can have caused more chaos and mayhem in their time than the tulip.  A member of the Liliaceae, it originated probably in the Parmirs, the native habitat of the wild species stretches from the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia minor, across south-central Asia to western China.  Most of its very many cultivars derive from the species T. gesneriana, although a number of other species are being grown.

It is with the Ottoman Empire that it is often associated, and of course more latterly, and for completely different reasons, with Holland.  In the mid 16th century tales began to reach Europe of the ‘red lilies’ much prized by the Ottomans.  The first report of tulips growing in Europe came from the Swiss botanist Conrad Gesner, who found them in a garden in Augsburg in Bavaria.  It is believed that they were brought to Europe by ambassadors from the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I to the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, probably during the 1550s.

Suleyman’s Empire in the mid 16th. century represented the beginning of the zenith of Ottoman power, when it stretched from Hungary to the Horn of Africa, and Algeria to the Caspian Sea, its influence being felt all over Europe.  The tulip played an important part in Ottoman culture, its flowers were much admired, and it frequently featured in the designs on ceramics and textiles.  Indeed the late 16th. century is known as the ‘tulip era’ of Turkish history.

Almost from the beginning, the appearance of tulips in Europe caused a stir, partly because anything Turkish was seen as exotic, and partly because the flowers could be spectacularly eye catching.  The Flemish Botanist Carolus Clusius is usually credited/blamed for bringing the tulip to Holland, firstly in 1593 to the University of Leiden Botanical Garden from Vienna, where he had been in charge of the Imperial Medical Garden.  He also grew tulips in his own private garden from which many were stolen – obviously tulips quickly became a ‘must have’ for Dutch gardeners, and were widely cultivated.  The climate of Holland and the rich, alluvial soil were ideal for propagating bulbs; the country became, and remains the world’s foremost bulb producer.

Some tulips developed a curious characteristic in which the pigmentation of the petals, instead of being uniform, changed spontaneously, and appeared as feather or flame shaped patches against a background of either yellow or red.  The characteristic was transmitted to offset bulbs and became known as ‘breaking’.  These were greatly sought after and consequently expensive - made the more so because they grew more slowly and produced fewer offsets.  The cause of this remained a mystery until the 1930s when it was found to be caused by the aphid born Tulip Breaking Virus (TBV).

There is an early example (Fig. 1) of broken tulips in a still life painted ca. 1620/21 by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621) the eminent Dutch still life painter.  It clearly shows a yellow/red and a pink/white broken tulip together with a snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris – right) two roses, some 'Lily of the Valley' (Convallaria) and an assortment of bugs.  Bosschaert specialised in botanically accurate flower paintings, so he would have been familiar with broken tulips and aware of the esteem in which they were held.

Tulips had become very popular in Holland soon after their introduction, and the broken types in particular commanded high prices, but in the 1630s there occurred the bizarre episode known to history as the Dutch ‘Tulip Mania’.

Speculative bubbles are a recurring feature of human society and generally result in a few getting very rich, a few ending up committing suicide in despair and rest ending up poorer (but rarely wiser).  The Dutch Tulip Mania wasn’t the first example of a speculative bubble (there had in fact been a less well known similar episode in France a couple of years earlier) and it most certainly wasn’t the last; but it remains one of the most infamous.

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