The humble tulip, so often seen wrapped up in cellophane on a garage forecourt, actually has a fascinating and exciting history that’s as good as any romantic novel!
It started life as a wild flower until it began being cultivated in Persia, probably in the 10th century. Rather sweetly, the name ‘tulip’ is thought to come from a Persian word for turban, which it may have been thought to resemble. It then carries on growing quietly, relatively unnoticed… but all that changed in the 1630s when the tulip became the ‘It girl’ of its era, an incredibly valuable commodity on which fortunes were made and lost.
Tulips finally came to the attention of the west in the sixteenth century, when diplomats to the Ottoman court observed and reported on them. Tulips were rapidly introduced into Europe and botanists started to hybridize the flower and they soon found ways of making even more decorative and tempting specimens. Hybrids and mutations of the flower were seen as rarities and a sign of high status – definitely the Burberry handbag of its day!
In the months of late 1636 to early 1637 there was a complete ‘Tulip mania’ in the Netherlands. The enthusiasm for the new tulips triggered a speculative frenzy and tulip bulbs became so expensive that they were treated as a form of currency, or rather, as futures. Some examples of the flower could cost more than a house in Amsterdam at this time.
There was an inevitable crash in prices in 1637, when people came to their senses and stopped purchasing the bulbs at such high prices. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, interest in the tulip remained, but the Dutch became the true connoisseurs and stockists. To this day, tulips are associated with the Netherlands, and the cultivated forms of the tulip are often called ‘Dutch tulips.’ The Netherlands has the world’s largest permanent display of tulips at the Keukenhof.
In their natural state tulips are adapted to mountainous areas with temperate climates. Flowering in the spring, they become dormant in the summer once the flowers and leaves die back, emerging above ground as a shoot from the underground bulb in early spring.
Nowadays, there are many different tulip varieties to choose from and you can still buy some of the original ‘wild’ varieties, often called ‘species’ tulips.
Not everyone loves tulips and not everyone seems to have much success growing them, I certainly don’t! Is it one of your favourites, or would you rather be presented with a bunch of something else?