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A Brief History of Tulips

The amazing history of this flower, from its humble origins as a 'simple' wildflower.

Although the story does not begin in Holland, it does conclude there. Tulips are native to Central Asia, to put it simply. There are few flowers that have been "worked on" as much as these.

Many bulb blooms are native to other parts of the world and are now cultivated, manufactured, and sold from Holland. In truth, no bulb's ancestors came from Holland. Mexico is the source of wild dahlias. Amaryllis is a South American flower. South African freesias and callas are popular. The majority of the "wild" lilies are native to China, Japan, and North America. It's crucial to note that many of the original wild forms of these well-known flowers don't resemble the garden flowers made by largely Dutch hybridizers.

 

From the dry hillsides to the Turkish court to the hybridizers and investors in Holland

There are around 150 different species of "wild" tulips. Their ancestral homeland is centered on the Pamir Alai and Tien-Shan Mountain Ranges, which are located near the modern-day Russian/Chinese border. They are mostly found as far east to China and as far west all the way to Spain and France, but they can also be found in dry areas of Central Asia.

 

Tulips were glorified by the Turks long before the Dutch did

Tulips "came from Turkey," as you may have heard. It would be more correct to state that the early botanists of the great Ottoman Empire, often known as the Turkish Empire, were greatly interested long before the Europeans became interested. Tulips were cultivated by the Turks as early as 1,000 AD. Their dominion, however, was significantly broader than that of modern-day Turkey. Tulips were eventually introduced from locations that are now parts of Russia, such as the Black Sea region, Crimea, and the steppes north of the Caucasus, all of which were once part of the Ottoman Empire.

 

The Tulip’s Tale

A well-known Turkish legend tells of a magnificent prince named Farhad who fell in love with the lovely Shirin. He learned of her death one day and, overcome by sadness, rode his favorite horse and rushed over a precipice to his death. A scarlet tulip is claimed to have sprung from each droplet of his blood, making the flower a historic symbol of pure love.

The Sultans celebrated the tulip throughout the Ottoman Empire's glory days, and the blossoms became symbols of riches and power. One well-known myth speaks of a Sultan who overspent on a tulip festival and ended up "losing his head." Tulips were extensively celebrated in the Netherlands long before the Dutch became enamored with them. The tulip is still Turkey's national flower today.

 

Tulips goes to Europe

Europeans became plant explorers in the 1500s and began documenting their findings. Tulip botanical drawings began to appear in Europe, and they were so beautiful that they attracted a lot of attention. Tulipa bononiensis, a botanical depiction, in particular, became well-known. Others displayed "flamed" tulips, which were quite exotic to Europeans, and curiosity in these "new blooms" grew. Even though the famed Dutch painter never painted flowers, these were the multicolored blossoms that are now known as "Rembrandt" tulips. Other renowned Dutch painters followed in his footsteps.

A botanist named Carolus Clusius, a botanist working at the University of Leiden, is where the main flow of the tulip tale in Holland begins. He had largely dealt with therapeutic herbs in Prague and Vienna. However, in 1593, he was named "Hortulanus," the modern title for a head botanist, at the University of Leiden's now-famous "Hortus," Western Europe's first botanical garden. His "tulip link" began, though, during one of his early ventures in Vienna. Clusius had met a man named De Busbecq, who was the envoy to Sultan Suleiman's court in Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire's capital. Clusius was given tulip bulbs from Central Asia by DeBusbecq, and he transported them to Holland with him. The rest is, quite literally, history.

Clusius was primarily interested in the tulip's scientific significance, most likely in the hopes of discovering medical applications for the bulbs. However, after seeing the famous drawings, some individuals in Holland grew more interested in the blooms as a source of revenue for the growing ornamental floral trade. Clusius fuelled the fire by keeping his bulbs hidden and guarded, and after a while, the public became so desperate for tulips that some were even stolen from his gardens. This was the start of the well-known "Tulipomania."

 

Tulipomania: The historic rise and fall of the "great tulip craze" 

Once a few bulbs escaped Clusius' protecting clutches, they were regarded as extremely valuable rarities. Prices began to climb as trade-in bulbs became established. As a real trade market established in the early 1600s, prices surged. As the glamour of hybrids grew, the limited supply of specific bulbs became highly valued by the wealthy, who were willing to pay nearly any price for them. By 1624, a single tulip variety, with just 12 bulbs available, was selling for 3000 guilders each bulb, roughly $1500 today. (Imagine... for just 50 cents, you can have a very comparable "Rembrandt" tulip bulb!) A single bulb went for the equivalent of $2250 plus a horse and carriage just a short time later, according to one notable sale! It was a fantastic bubble that was about to pop.

The excitement persisted in the 1630s when notarized bills of sale for bulbs were issued, fraud and speculation were rampant, and what always happens with financial "bubbles" occurred. In 1637, there was an accident. Many wealthy traders became impoverished overnight, and prices eventually stabilized at a more reasonable level. Of course, none of this dampened the real demand, which sprang from people's admiration for the blooms' stunning beauty. Since then, the industrious Dutch have established one of the world's best-organized manufacturing and export businesses. In Holland, about nine billion flower bulbs are produced each year, with about 7 billion of them being shipped for a total export value of $3 billion. According to the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center, the United States is the largest importer of Dutch bulbs, with $130 million worth of Dutch bulbs imported every year (at wholesale).

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