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The History of Tulips

Updated on March 29, 2015
A reproduction of a famous painting from the Dutch Golden Age painter Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder.
A reproduction of a famous painting from the Dutch Golden Age painter Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder.
Tulipa gesneriana, one of the parent species of modern tulip cultivars.
Tulipa gesneriana, one of the parent species of modern tulip cultivars. | Source

Tulips: Small Central Asian Natives

Tulips are very popular plants, especially in Europe. You certainly know them as being one of the symbols of the Netherlands. As such, many people think that tulips originated from there. Well, while true for many of the thousands of hybrids and cultivars grown throught the world today, the natural origin of tulips is quite different and distant and their cultivation is quite old. As you may know, tulips are perennial bulbous plants popularized by their flowers. Today, 76 species are accepted as belonging to genus Tulipa belonging to family Liliaceae, the lily family. Wild tulips range from the Iberian Peninsula, Southern Mediterranean basin, the Balkans, Turkey, Middle East, and Iran to Central Asia. The highest center of genetic diversity in tulips, and probably their center of origin, is found in the region around the Pamir Mountains, located north of the Himalayas. As with roses, most tulip hybrids and cultivars come from a reduced number of parent species, not always easily identifiable. However, many genetic studies point to Tulipa suaveolens as the parent species of most hybrids and cultivars, including the one of the first cultivated hybrid complexes Tulipa gesneriana, also known as Didier’s tulip or garden tulip, usually considered the parent of most cultivated varieties.

Several tulips in 1630 illustration, including the bulb.
Several tulips in 1630 illustration, including the bulb.
The various stages of tulip life cycle.
The various stages of tulip life cycle.
Tulip fruit (capsule)
Tulip fruit (capsule) | Source
Tulip seeds and capsule.
Tulip seeds and capsule. | Source

Tulips are easily recognized by their typical flowers and are a typical element of steppe and winter-rain Mediterranean vegetation. Tulips endure winter by staying dormant in the ground, a process known as vernalization, and bloom in spring, giving those spectacular images of the Dutch fields that on itself are a valuable touristic attraction of the country. Tulips are small to medium size herbaceous plants, up to 80 cm in height that give mostly single large cup or star-shaped hermaphroditic flowers on scapes, i.e. flower stems that originate from the root. A minority of species and of cultivated varieties can give multiple flowers per scape, e.g Tulipa turkestanica. Most tulips have few strap-shaped long leaves, with a waxy coating, 2 up to 12 in larger species, alternately arranged on the stem. In many species the leaf blades are fleshy and often bluish green in color. The fruit is a capsule with many small disc-shaped seeds inside.

Early Cultivation Records

Although the first literary mention about tulips dates from the 1550s, the truth is that tulips were known to man long before that. There is a wide variety of Turkish ornaments of the twelfth century portraying tulips. The commercial cultivation of tulips probably began in early Persia somewhere in the 10th century. Early cultivars must have emerged from hybridization in gardens from wild collected plants, which were then favored due to flower size or growth vigor. However, some authors suggest that tulips were first cultivated by the Chinese and then introduced to Central Asia and Persia by trading. Tulips flourished during the Ottoman Empire where many cultivars and hybrids were bred and cultivated.

Although it is not possible to determine who first brought tulips into Western Europe. The first written account of their existence made by Europeans seems to be that of Oghier Ghislain de Busbecq, Flemish ambassador of Ferdinand I of Germany to Suleyman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire between 1555 and 1562. In 1553, in a letter he remarked his surprise and astonishment of seeing in the markets of Constantinople (now Istanbul) an abundance of unusual red lilies that possessed large onions, especially in midwinter, a season unfriendly to flowers. In 1559, the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner described tulips flowering in Augsburg, Bavaria in the garden of Councillor Herwart. Tulips also caught the attention of the famous Flemish botanist Charles de l'Écluse, or Carolus Clusius, who first cultivated tulip bulbs at the Imperial Botanical Gardens of Vienna in 1573. In October 1593, Charles de l'Écluse was appointed professor at the University of Leiden. From a load of clandestine tulip bulbs, he cultivated them successfully at the Leiden University's newly established Hortus Botanicus, where he was appointed director. There, past a few months, the spring of 1594 marks the widely accepted beginnings of the cultivation of tulips in the Netherlands. It did not take long for the popularity of tulips spread throughout Europe. Charles de l'Écluse was in fact largely responsible for this in the final years of the sixteenth century. He published several works noting the variations in color that helped make the tulip so admired. Due to tulips increasing demand and popularity, Charles de l'Écluse was himself victim of his work as he suffered large thefts from his public and private gardens in 1596 and 1598. In one single raid over a hundred bulbs were stolen.

Pamir region in Central Asia, center of tulips diversity

Charles de l'Écluse, who first introduced tulips to Western Europe in the sixteen century.
Charles de l'Écluse, who first introduced tulips to Western Europe in the sixteen century. | Source
Multicolored tulips were among the most valued in the Netherlands in the 17th century, here illustrated in this Hans Bollongier painting from 1639.
Multicolored tulips were among the most valued in the Netherlands in the 17th century, here illustrated in this Hans Bollongier painting from 1639. | Source


Due to its vivid colors, exotic shapes, and almost mythical origin, Dutch people were completely fascinated with tulips. Fanciful and exaggerated stories were circulated about the exorbitant amounts and value that the sultans of Turkey attributed to bulbs. While in part true, tulips were in fact highly praised during the Ottoman Empire and were often used as adornments of high social classes they were far from creating the hysteria that later developed in the Netherlands in the early seventeen century. In late 1590s early 1600s, Tulips thus began to be seen by Dutch people as a symbol of wealth thus high social status. This meant that the tulips were coveted by all concerned citizens to maintain their social position. Therefore, it did not take long for growing tulip bulbs to become a lucrative business. Far from its native range, being cultivated with limited technology and knowledge of its natural life cycle, all contributed that the demand for tulips began to outstrip supply. Not surprisingly, the price of bulbs grew tremendously which then fueled its value and demand further.

This period of Dutch history is remarkable in many ways. In the 1630s, tulips bulbs became the most desired item of that time in the Netherlands. At that time, a bulb was accepted as dowry for a bride and three bulbs were the price of a house well located on the banks of a canal. Bulb traders could earn monthly roughly the equivalent of 30,000 Euros commission, in today's currency. Therefore, the prices that did not stop climbing made many ordinary families, middle class or poor, to stay tempted to start speculating on the tulip market. Many families mortgaged their homes, properties, businesses and industries in order to buy tulip bulbs that would later be resold at higher prices. At the beginning of the wave, sellers only did business in the spring when the bulbs bloomed and the flowers could then be valued. As the business was so lucrative and seemed so prosperous, it did take long for them to invent a way to keep market going for the whole year. Speculators would buy bulbs in winter and would keep them in the hope that the prices would soon rise. In fact in many cases they even did not keep the bulb itself. Investors bought what they called a contract (a title in financial jargon) that gave them right to the money that they would get later once that bulb (contract) would be sold again. At one point they were no longer trading bulbs or tulips but marketing their own contracts, on what is called today a derivative market. The hysteria was such that the Dutch were no longer trading tulips because they were pretty rather to make a financial killing. The idea was rather simple, an investor who had paid 1200 guilders (the Dutch currency at the time that lasted until 2002) would rather sell the “bulb” for 1300 guilders to an immediate interested rather than waiting for the price of the bulb to go until spring. That who bought the “bulb” for 1300 guilders could then find someone who would pay 1400 guilders and the process would go on endlessly as long as there was always someone interested. The market was so fast that it was possible to buy a bulb for 1400 guilders and sell it by 1500 guilders on next day; that is making profit without having invested anything really. In finance, this called leverage. Bulbs were being sold and resold many times without ever having even left the ground. Fortunes would double in the blink of an eye. Many poor became rich and many rich became millionaires. At one point in the frenzy, the price for a single tulip bulb exceeded the annual earnings of a skilled craftsman by a factor of 10. A financial bubble was then created.

A Satire of Tulip Mania by Flemish painter Brueghel the Younger (ca. 1640), depicting the social hysteria at the time as if the market was run by brainless monkeys.
A Satire of Tulip Mania by Flemish painter Brueghel the Younger (ca. 1640), depicting the social hysteria at the time as if the market was run by brainless monkeys. | Source

The Ducth tulip market of that time became sort of stock market were the rarest and most beautiful tulips, equivalent to today’s big companies, thus more valued, were the safest to invest on. However, as they were already highly valued their prices would not change much. As with any speculative financial bubble, nothing goes up infinitively and the prices of tulips are no exception and eventually crashed. In 1637, there were more sellers than buyers which lead to the discovery of many frauds. Investors and tulip growers were selling fake contracts, which did not give right to any bulb. Distrust reigned and no one else wanted those contracts anymore. Contracts were then turned "junk bonds", in the jargon of economists, meaning worthless. By May 1637, not so long after the market had reached its peak where bulbs were changing hands 10 times a day, many of those who had sold their homes, lands and businesses in order to invest in the easy money were left with nothing. Thousands of Dutch families were ruined. Does this sound familiar to you?? This period of Dutch economic history is known by historians as Tulipmania or Tulipomania and is now used as a metaphor for speculative excess. It was the first speculative financial bubble created and unfortunately many more followed. Looking back, today, what happened in the Netherlands, in early seventeen century, is funny in many aspects, not only economic. What seems pathetic as people freaking out over buying and selling tulips, yes tulips, flowers, did not stop next generations from freaking out over other “tulips”.

Tulip bulbs contracts price index at the peak of tulipmania before it crahsed in 1637.
Tulip bulbs contracts price index at the peak of tulipmania before it crahsed in 1637. | Source
The famous and most coveted Semper Augustus tulip.
The famous and most coveted Semper Augustus tulip. | Source

All Because of a Virus

To me as someone who really enjoys plants, any plant…, one of the funniest aspects of Tulipmania is that tulip itself (I mean the plant) played an important role besides being just beautiful to Dutch eyes. This was so “well played” by the plant that it took about 300 years since then to discover tulip’s conspiracy role. Besides being small and giving few flowers, tulips have in fact a complex life cycle. It takes between 7 and 12 years from tulips to mature and flower when grown from seed. Besides seeds the plant also produces bud clones, or offsets annually, with the "mother bulb" lasting only a few years. When properly cultivated, the "daughter offsets" will become flowering bulbs of their own after one to three years. At those times, tulips were classified by their color and flower shape and the most valued where those that had multicolored flowers, called variegated. These were called Rosen, and among these were the rarest and most coveted of them all, the Bizarden, with yellow or white streaks on red, purple or brown background. The multicolor effects of intricate lines and flame-like streaks on its petals made Semper Augustus, red petals with white streaks, the most expensive tulip sold at that time. Now we know that these still popular multicolored effects are a symptom of infection with a type of tulip-specific mosaic virus, known as the Tulip breaking virus. It is so called because it "breaks" the single color pattern of the petals. Although the first written records of these fascinating color patterns were first made by Charles de l'Écluse in 1576, it was only in late 1920s that these were attributed to a communicable plant disease caused by a virus. In the early seventeen century Netherlands, people did not know this. The virus affects the plant and propagates due to the fact that the bulb produces offsets. The virus is not transmitted through the seeds. However, besides “breaking” the color pattern of the flowers the virus also weakens the bulb and retards the propagation of offsets. This limited the cultivation of “broken” varieties tremendously as it took longer to obtain them compared to single color tulips. In the end, this contributed to the “broken” varieties high value and demand. Mostly likely, from the time that speculation started until its collapse, in 1637, the actual number of rare “broken” bulbs that changed hands so feverishly may have never increased beyond the original number.

Lilies are also affected by a similar virus which causes the same color breaking patterns. Although, today this virus has a global distribution and its control is quite difficult as it is distributed to plants by aphids, the vast majority of variegated tulips as well as other cultivated flowers are a result of inbreeding and artificial selection. Unfortunately, those seventeen century rare varieties are now extinct and modern day plants infected with the virus are fragile and usually much smaller than healthy plants. The oldest “broken” variety still existing today is the rare Absalon, dating back to 1780, with its gold flames against a dark chocolate brown background. In this case it seems that the worsen effects of the virus are in fact benign.

One of Netherlands touristic attractions, tulip fiels, here illustrated in one of Monet's paitings.
One of Netherlands touristic attractions, tulip fiels, here illustrated in one of Monet's paitings. | Source

Still a Flourishing Industry

Despite what happened, the human passion for tulips survived the tragic consequences of tulipmania inspiring painters, artists, poets and scientists. In the 18th century, Dutch tulips were so famous that the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III decided to import thousands of tulips from The Netherlands. Thus, after a long journey, tulips have returned to their roots in Ottoman Turkey. Today, the cultivation of tulips in the Netherlands is one of the most important industries of the country. Netherlands is the world producer where there are about 3500 registered tulip growers who produce about 3 billion bulbs and export to more than 80 countries worldwide annually.

The Netherlands


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    • Majidsiko profile image

      Majidsiko 3 years ago from Kenya

      Extremely enlightening hub. Never knew the flower has so much history behind it. Every object as a long history attached to it..

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