Feast your eyes on these exquisite flowers with a storied past by learning the history of tulips.
Spectacular, brilliantly colored tulips are among the showiest and most varied of all the spring-blooming perennial plants. Happily they are also some of the easiest ornamentals to grow!
And in addition to their usefulness to todays busy weekend gardeners, tulips are steeped in history and rich in both lore and tradition.
(see Slideshow above for more tulips varieties)
Origins of the tulip
“Tulip” is a strange-sounding name of Middle Eastern origin. Tulips were unknown in the ancient Mediterranean; therefore there is no Greek or Latin name for them. Instead, “tulip” is a corruption of a Turkish word, tülbend, meaning “gauze” or “muslin”—which in turn is derived from the Persian word delbend, meaning “turban.”
It is believed that the application of the word "turban" to the flower is either the result of the latter's resemblance in shape and brilliance to the flamboyant turbans of the Ottoman court. Another more likely story says that because the Turks frequently wore cut tulip flowers in their turbans, early translators were simply confused between the words for the flower versus the word for the garment! In reality, the Turks, like the Persians before them, called tulips “lale” or “laleh.”
The original tulips themselves were, of course, species that grew wild and have done so for millennia. As with many other plants, tulip species names are made and unmade by taxonomists based upon their observations and the state of botany at any given time. However, present classification schemes recognize some 75 tulip species. These are distributed throughout western Asia and immediately surrounding areas.
The center of diversity for the original wild or species tulips is in the remote valleys of the Tien Shan Mountains, where China and Tibet come up against the borders of Russia and Afghanistan. There, in one of the most inaccessible places on Earth, over half of the known species of tulips occur naturally.
The predominant color of these wild tulips is red, which spoke to the warlike tribes that inhabited the region, and they became the very first in a succession of groups to venerate the plant. The region subtends Turkestan and was frequented by Turkic tribes, long before these appear in recorded history.
The beauty of intense flower colors, appearing as it did in the bleak and rugged landscape, was not lost on these fierce tribesmen, becoming to them a symbol of fertility and life; thus an unlikely connection was formed that resurfaced centuries later.
The Turkic tribes were nomadic horsemen of warlike bent, and they made occasional inroads into many lands outside of their ancestral homeland, sometimes raiding and sometimes trading. So it may well be that bulbs or seed were at some time traded southward into Persia.
"Tulip Days" in the Muslim world
Persia is where the earliest known historical documentation of tulips and their cultivation first appears. We know that the regal flower was grown there by 1050 A.D., both in the ancient capital city of Isfahan as well as at Baghdad, the Islamic capital of the time. There, tulips along with many other flowers were cultivated in traditional walled gardens called pairedeza, from which our word “paradise” is derived (via the ancient Greeks).
In its adopted homeland, the tulip inspired both mythology and poetry. The renowned poet Omar Kayyam wrote romantically of the flower about 1250. And in one origin myth, the scarlet laleh arose from the spilled blood flowing from the self-inflicted wounds of an anguished lover in mourning. The flowers grew from his perfect love, coming in time have a symbolic meaning of undying love. Mystical associations added richness to the lore and belief around these ethereal beauties.
The Ottoman Turks certainly carried the tulip, both the plant and the reverence for it, as they migrated westward. Long before their conquest of Constantinople in 1453, tulips were widely used in their decorative motifs. Tulip breeding began there, perhaps in the 1520s. Because many of these early hybrids' ancestors had grown about the walls of the city, by this time renamed Istanbul, they became known as Istanbul tulips.
Working with a multitude of species tulips gathered from diverse quarters of the empire, Ottoman gardeners took advantage of the species' felicitous propensity to cross freely with each other. New colors were revealed and flower forms began to evolve. Many of the early hybrids were probably accidental, but remarkable new varieties appeared nonetheless. Records of the time supply not just famous gardeners' names but also the names by which some of these varieties were known: Nur-I-Adin, or “Light of Paradise,” was one. Other famous early crosses had evocative names like “The Matchless Pearl,” “Diamond's Envy,” and “Rose of the Dawn.” The Ottomans had developed a virtual cult around the tulip in all its levels—from the practical through the symbolic to the mystical, and back again!
Westerners' first contact with the flower no doubt occurred at Istanbul, where numerous Christian republics and kingdoms sent frequent embassies. But in the century following the Ottoman Turks' final conquest of Constantinople, the plant made its way westward, leaving Turkish hands altogether.
It is not known for certain exactly when the tulip first reached Western Europe. One widely held claim is that they were sent there from Istanbul by one Ogier Ghislain Buzbec, ambassador to the Ottomans from the Holy Roman Emperor. Buzbec is known to have written about them and shipped them, which would apparently have happened about 1558—but there is also an account of them flowering in Germany in the spring of 1559. The time-line barely adds up, in a day when it could take months to travel a few hundred miles. Buzbec's account was written years later, so it's possible that his recollection was imperfect. Or, perhaps the tulip had also made its way west earlier and there are simply no known literary sources until Buzbec. In any case, he was certainly one of the first westerners to become captivated by this most regal flower.
Arrival in Western Europe
The tulip had arrived in Western Europe, complete with an Oriental mystique and a number of foundation crosses, making further breeding work comparatively easy. Moreover, it had arrived at a time where the interest and the resources were available to develop it.
Europe was alive with a renewed passion for science, including horticulture. A century or more of refinements in visual arts had gentled peoples' artistic sensibilities. This fact, combined with the wealth of a burgeoning class of entrepreneurial nouveau-riche, created a situation conducive to a fascination with a rare and beautiful new plant came to be appreciated for its own exotic beauty as well as for its utility as a status symbol.
The first recorded tulip cultivated in Europe flowered in the garden of one Joseph Heinrich Herwart, near Augsburg, in Bavaria in April of 1559. Interest was immediate, and visitors came great distances to see the new flowers firsthand.
One such was naturalist and botanist Conrad Gesner of Zurich. He later wrote, “I saw this plant displayed, sprung from a seed that had come from Byzantia . . . It was flowering with a single beautiful red flower, large, like a red lily, formed of eight petals of which four were outside and the rest within. It had a very sweet, soft and subtle scent which soon disappeared.” His original sketch survives, though it shows only six petals (the normal number in tulips). Yet, curiously, Gesner himself had already heard of the tulip and seen a sketch of one reputedly grown in northern Italy around 1550.
From multiple beachheads the tulip soon took Europe by storm. Tulips were being grown in Vienna by 1572, England by 1582, Netherlands by 1594 and France by 1598. In England, in 1597, the celebrated herbalist John Gerard wrote of the existence of white, yellow, red, and lilac varieties. In the era of the newly invented printing press, these eminent men wrote and were published; their work was read by other enthusiasts throughout Europe.
One such botanist was Carolus Clusius, who laid the foundations for Dutch tulip breeding. Clusius experimented with breeding tulips (even though the principles of heredity were not well understood at the time). Clusius had met Buzbec prior to 1583 and received tulip bulbs from him. Clusius and his colleagues created a number of marvelous hybrids, including ‘Viceroy’ and ‘Semper Augustus.’ Clusius died in 1609, decades before the fruition of the Tulipomania he unknowingly helped to spawn. He had been instrumental in popularizing tulips, having written about them and planted a number of European demonstration gardens. Moreover, dozens of bulbs, stolen from one of his gardens, are believed to have provided the foundation stock for the Dutch tulip industry!
Tulip propagation can be a slow process. Only seed-grown tulips provide new varieties. But to grow a seedling to blooming size can take 5 to 8 years! On the other hand, tulip bulbs do make new bulbs or offsets from the base of a mother bulb. These new bulbs are genetically identical with the mother, and take only a year or two to bloom. So from a single bulb of a new variety, it can take a number of years to propagate significant quantities of new bulbs. In the meantime, the variety remains very rare, and could command high prices.
And high prices were exactly what well-heeled elite were willing to pay for the rarest and showiest of the new tulip hybrids. ‘Semper Augustus,’ possibly the most celebrated of all the novel forms of the period, was documented to have commanded the astonishing price of 10,000 guilders, which sum is said to have been the equivalent of a fashionable house in Amsterdam!
‘Semper Augustus,’ with its incredible longitudinal striping of snow white and brilliant scarlet, is believed to be depicted in the famous Dutch masterpiece, “Tulips in a Vase,” by Hans Boulenger. ‘Viceroy’ was similar, but with the addition of some yellow striations. Unfortunately, the dramatic striping turned out to be the work of a virus (see “Color Break Virus” at left).
In the years following the stunningly successful first round of Dutch tulip breeding, prices rose higher and higher as more of the extremely well-to-do entered the frenzy. With collectors paying as much as a skilled craftsman might earn in 10 years, and with the reliable but slow potential increase in bulb stocks, investors took to trading in contracts promising the bulbs in the future. The contracts were sold and resold at ever-inflating prices. This led to an incredible bubble in the tulip market.
Tulipomania had set in. Merchants, investors and would-be investors sometimes invested their life-savings or borrowed against their possessions, pouring money into what they believed was a sure thing. The crescendo was reached in 1636 to 1637. A default on a contract triggered a classic market meltdown, one that's widely regarded as the archetypal example of a bubble economic scenario. Overnight, fortunes vanished as the financial house of cards collapsed. Well-intentioned government intervention may have made the problem worse. The entire Dutch economy was seriously damaged by the event and recovery took years.
After the Gold Rush
Following the cataclysmic burst of the Tulipomania bubble, interest remained in the flowers, of course—but at a sensible and sustainable level ever after. Holland remained the dominant center of tulip breeding and tulip bulb production, as it does to this day.
Victorian tastes inclined to the Single Earliest, and classic varieties like ‘Couleur Cardinal’ and ‘Prince of Austria’ date from that era. In the 20th century, gardeners preferred taller, later-blooming types in pastel colors, and the Darwin types came to be strongly favored. ‘Art shades’, unusual combinations of various tones, often of very unlikely color schemes, are another type that became the rage at this time.
By the mid-20th century, decades of systematic tulip breeding had given rise to the unbelievable variety of tulip types and colors we know today. Triumph, Fringed, Parrot, Lily-flowered, and numerous other types make a dazzling diversity of forms and hues.
Today there are tulips available to suit any gardening style and any conceivable taste, from cottage gardens to mass plantings of a single variety. The season for tulip blooms lasts for many weeks, from early- to late-blooming varieties, and all sizes are available—from the often very petite species tulips, to the tall Emperor types.
Gone are the days when a tulip bulb costs years' wages. Fortunately, today every gardener with an empty corner or even a pot on a windowsill can enjoy these fabulous flowers of history and legend.
Randel A. Agrella has overseen rare seed production at Baker Creek Seed Company since 2005. He writes and lectures extensively, owns and operates abundantacres.net, which grows and ships strictly heirloom veggie starts, and has recently relocated to Maine. You can follow the development of his new farm, Parsnippity Farm, on Facebook.
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