Five Fascinating Facts About… Tulips

Jill Staake

I grew up in Ohio, where spring came in slowly and sweetly, with forsythia blooms and crocus, followed by daffodils and dogwood, and at last the bold colors of tulips. I live in Central Florida now, which has seasonal changes aplenty… but no traditional spring bulbs. We don’t have the chilling season required for these bulbs to flower properly year after year. This past year, I was so nostalgic for the spring blooms of my youth that I forced a few tulips (with middling success; read more here), but it was nothing like the beds of tulips I remember from my youth.

Tulips are beloved the world over, and they have a complicated history. Learn a little more with these five fascinating facts…

1. Tulips aren’t native to Holland. To trace the origin of tulips, you have to head south, to Southern Europe and Northern Africa. From there, their native range extends east through India all the way to Western China. There are 109 species in the genus Tulipa, with the majority of them found wild in Central  Asia, especially the mountain regions, where they can receive the months of winter chilling they require, followed by long cool springs and dry summers that help them thrive.

Tulipa turkestanica, a relative of today's cultivated tulips, is native to Iran and Turkmenistan.

2. Holland didn’t pioneer cultivation of tulips either. OK, well, at least Holland gets credit for bringing them to gardens, right? Nope, that distinction goes to Turkey, during the Ottoman Empire in the early to mid-1500s (the exact date is unknown). By 1559, it had been recorded in Bavaria, and found its way into botanical gardens by 1573. The Netherlands now considers 1594 to be the “official” date of the first flowering of tulips within its borders. Today’s cultivated varieties are mainly descended from the species Tulipa gesneria.

'Semper Augustus' was one of the most famous and valuable tulips during Tulip Mania. This variety no longer exists, having succumbed to the very disease that created its spectacular blooms.

3. Tulip bulbs once cost more than houses. Once Holland got its hands on tulips, things went a little crazy. Gardeners in Holland were famous for cultivating and selling the most beautiful and exotic flowers in the world; they regularly supplied the gardens of kings and emperors. And when they began experimenting with tulips, learning how to manipulate the plants to create amazing colors and streaked petals, they created a fad for tulips that swept across Europe, often known as “Tulip Mania”. Some types of tulip bulbs became worth ten times more than an average workman earned in a year – for a single bulb! A special type of vase called a “tulipiere” was developed to show off individual stems (see an example here). Though it’s hard to measure in today’s dollars, the value of these bulbs was incredibly high. Too high, in fact, because…

4. Tulips are widely considered to be the commodity that caused the first “bubble and burst” crisis. Just like today with oil prices or mortgages, tulips became a sought-after commodity as investors began speculating in tulip bulbs. Individual tulip bulbs bloom once a year, for about a week in early spring. From about June to September, the dormant bulbs can be lifted and transplanted or sold. During the time of “Tulip Mania” (1630s), investors weren’t willing to wait until the dormant period to buy or sell. The futures market was created as investors bought and sold bulbs year-round… even though few physical bulbs actually changed hands. People weren’t buying tulips for the blooms, but rather for the profit. And in the end, it all came crashing down around their ears, when the price of tulips suddenly crashed in 1637 (possibly due to a new outbreak of the bubonic plague), destroying fortunes and ending the wild speculation. Tulip Mania had ended.

5. The tulip bulbs you buy represent years of cultivation. Tulips are sold as bulbs because the seeds themselves take many years to produce flowers – usually at least five. When growers are creating a new variety of tulip, the process takes even longer. Once the new variety is developed and blooming, the only way to get more is to let the bulb produce offsets at the rate of a few each year. A new variety of tulip takes at least 20 years to make its way to the commercial market. Fortunately, once they’re in your hands and planted in the right environment, tulips will last and multiply for many years to come. Your bulbs are an investment too, and probably a much safer one than those of speculators in the 1630s.

You can learn more about the amazing history of tulip cultivation and speculation from the book Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, by Mike Dash. What do you love most about tulips? Tell us in the comments below!

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