No other flower in our gardens has the history of fascination, obsession and extravagance that comes anywhere close to the tulip. Its beauty has inspired poets, artists, even nations-and also lured people to their doom. For a thousand years tulips have held a unique power over us that has brought down dynasties, crashed economies, and, finally, become a powerful symbol of peace between nations.
If you hiked along the rocky mountain slopes of Central Asia, you likely wouldn’t recognize the windblown clumps of squat, unassuming wildflowers as the ancestors of today’s elegant, lavish tulips. Gardeners of the ancient Turkish Empire cultivated the flowers for centuries. With its structure of a single bulb producing a single flower, they became a symbol of God and are called lale, which is written with the same letters as Allah.
By 1500 the vast Ottoman Empire included all of Asia Minor, much of the Balkans, and the Southern Mediterranean from Gibraltar to the Persian Gulf. It was ruled over by the powerful Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, a great statesman, a poet and a passionate gardener. The tulip was his favorite flower and symbol of his court, filling the vast and complex gardens at his summer residence. Sulieman’s descendents shared his passion for the flower, but, unfortunately, not his political and economic skill. Each year magnificent spring tulip festivals were staged in the gardens of the serai during a night of the full moon. Filled with music, light and lavish food and drink, guests had to make sure that their clothing harmonized with the colours of the tulips. These outrageously costly parties for the rich had a catastrophic affect on the treasury and were finally banned. Even so the adoration didn’t die out; as late as 1783 there was a tulip celebration to honour the birth of a child to Abdul Hamid I. Throughout this period Turks protected the growing and trade in tulips with strict regulations and it was forbidden to sell tulips outside the capital-on pain of exile.
The man who is credited with introducing the tulip to Europe was a Flemish diplomat named Busbecq. In 1573 he was the ambassador to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople. Busbecq is also the man responsible for mis-naming the flower: walking through the streets with his interpreter, Busbecq pointed to a tulip tucked into the turban of a passerby and asked what the name of the flower was. Mistaking his question, the interpreter gave him the word for turban, ‘tolipam’ which eventually became tulip.
Busbecq sent a shipment of the bulbs and seeds back to his friend, the great botanist Carolus Clusius. News of these beautiful and exotic new flowers at the botanic garden in Leiden quickly spread, and Clusius was approached over and over with requests to share his bulbs with the outside world. A strict and dedicated scientist, he adamantly refused to part with any of his bulbs for mere ornamental display. But the lure of the tulip was too strong and before long the garden walls were breached, and the tulip was liberated from its quiet academic life-to become the most celebrated, and notorious, plant of the age.
Its unique beauty and its rarity quickly made the tulip the ‘signature’ flower of the very wealthiest members of Dutch society. Having this flower featured in your garden gave instant prestige and boosted your social status. Not surprisingly the demand for tulips grew so rapidly, and the supply was so limited, that the price of tulips was driven to astonishing heights. Those who couldn’t get their hands on the flowers commissioned the great artists of the day to paint tulip ‘portraits,’ which they hung in places of honour in their homes. And the most desirable of all was the rare, elusive ‘striped’ tulip.
Scratch the surface of most gardeners and you’ll find that we love having one or two ‘brag-plants’ in our gardens. They give us lots of pleasure, especially when our neighbours ooh and ah over them. We reply with the gardening equivalent of ‘oh, this old thing’, when we actually forked out about $50 for that one rare and beautiful fern leaf tree peony or cimicifuga brunette. But imagine selling your house, your car, and cashing in your RRSP-to buy a single tulip bulb. Sound insane? That’s exactly what otherwise sensible Dutch merchants started doing in 1634 during the three crazy years known simply as tulipomania.
Overnight the tulip went from being an exclusive and sought-after new flower, to being the object of one of the wildest episodes of financial speculation in history. Deeds of sale from this time show that single bulbs that were believed might produce the unique striped flower, sold for up to 4000 guilders. In 1635 that kind of money would buy two loads of wheat, four loads of rye, four fattened oxen, five hogs, twelve sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four barrels of beer, two barrels of butter, a thousand pounds of cheese, a bed with accessories, a suit of clothes, a silver goblet-and a ship to carry it in. For three crazy years, prices just kept climbing. More and more people jumped on the bandwagon and sank their entire fortunes into the purchase of just one bulb. Then, in the space of a few weeks, the tulip market collapsed. People who went to be wealthy one day, woke up broke the next. And, just as they did after the great stock market crash of the 1929, some men who’d lost their entire fortunes, leapt to their deaths rather than face poverty.
That’s flower power at its most extreme. It’s something to think about the next time you find yourself in a nursery drooling over the latest polemonium Bris d’Angou, but wavering over the $30.00 price tag. Look at it this way: by tulipomania standards, you’re being positively frugal. And, by the way, two hundred years later we finally learned the elusive ‘striped’ tulip was actually produced by a virus that randomly infected the bulbs. The good news is, after the dust settled from the crash, the Dutch regained their common sense and began a slow, steady cultivation of the flower that resulted in the establishment of their multi-billion-dollar tulip industry that today produces 90% of the world’s commercial tulip bulbs.
Tulips also symbolize a special bond between Canada and Holland dating back to WWII. In 1940 Europe was under siege by the Germans, and, when they invaded and occupied the Netherlands, the Dutch royal family made a difficult decision: the heir to the throne, Princess Juliana, was sent with her two young daughters to safety in Ottawa. In March 1945, with the aid of Canadian troops, the Netherlands was liberated. When it was all over, seven thousand Canadian soldiers were dead. That year a deeply grateful Dutch people hand-picked 100,000 tulip bulbs and sent them to Canada with a promise of 10,000 bulbs a year in perpetuity.
In 1990 the city of Ottawa presented Washington with a "peace garden", a replica of the specially designed tulip garden on Parliament Hill that commemorates our bond with the Netherlands. It was a gesture of friendship to celebrate the world’s longest undefended border. The following year the US gave a gift of an identical peace garden to the city of Warsaw in a gesture of friendship. In the year after that a peace garden was given by Warsaw to Berlin. And so it travels the world from city to city: this year the garden is in Vienna, and next year it will go to Rome. In this way Canada keeps the modern symbolism of the tulip alive: a living embodiment of friendship and peace between nations.