(Photo courtesy of Chris Bernstein)

Daffodils are among the first indicators of spring’s arrival. But when tulips begin to emerge from the ground, you know the warmer weather is here for sure. Perhaps that’s why the tulip has become so strongly associated with spring and the season of renewal.

I’ve always appreciated the simple shape of tulips, their understated beauty. I’ve planted tulip bulbs in my front yard and rejoiced in their annual emergence. But other than some general observations, I knew very little about tulips until this winter when I read Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Botany of Desire.

Pollan’s book gives insight into the history of the apple, the potato, cannabis and the tulip – revealing the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary aspects that have made these plants so common in our culture. What intrigued me most was the story of the Dutch tulip craze of the seventeenth century.

We tend to associate tulips with The Netherlands (Holland), where many varieties are bred and cultivated. But the plant itself is not native to The Netherlands. In fact, only a tiny percentage of tulip species grow wild anywhere in Europe – and those are primarily in the Mediterranean region. Most tulip varieties come from Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, and some former-Soviet nations such as Kazakhstan. The tulip’s scientific name, Tulipa, is derived from the Persian word “toliban,” meaning “turban,” a term which aptly describes the flower’s general shape.

The original wild tulips, cultivated as early as 1000 AD, were small and red. Tulip lore has it that nomadic tribes of Central and Western Asia first brought the flower to the Turkish Ottoman Empire. By the late 1500s, tulip bulbs and seeds had been imported to Europe, probably as a gift to the Viennese ambassador from Turkey’s ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent. While most of the bulbs and seeds were cultivated in the gardens of Emperor Ferdinand I, small portions were given to imperial botanist Carolus Clusius, who sent samples to fellow botanists across Europe. By the time he became a professor of botany at Holland’s Leiden University in 1593, Clusius was known as “The Father of the Tulip.”

In the late 1500s and early 1600s, tulips were all the rage in Holland. Wealthy families purchased the bulbs and grew elaborate gardens. Hybrids were developed, rendering the simple flower more colorful and decorative, sometimes with striped or ruffled petals.

These more unusual varieties especially were considered status symbols. They became a popular commodity, and sold for astronomical prices. For example, for a single Vice-Roi variety bulb, one person paid: thirty-six bushels of wheat and seventy-two of rice; four oxen, twelve sheep, eight pigs, two barrels of wine and four of beer; two tons of butter, a thousands pounds of cheese, a bed, clothes, and a silver cup! People abandoned jobs, homes, and families to become tulip growers, where – as long as the demand remained high — they could make a lot of money quickly and easily.

This “Tulipmania” peaked in 1636-37. Trading became so brisk that one could make a fortune in tulip futures, selling simple pieces of paper with promises of tulip bulbs as yet uncultivated. While at one point a single bulb could be sold for what today would be thousands of dollars, soon the tulip market became oversaturated. There were too many bulbs at too high a cost. Buyers began to lose interest. Tulips fell out of fashion. In February 1637, prices plummeted up to ninety percent. The government’s attempts to regulate and stabilize the market were futile. In the end, many tulip traders lost everything.

Still, tulips remain popular around the globe. They are relatively easy to grow. One day’s work can bring you years of spring flowers.

Here in New England, tulip bulbs should be planted in October, before the ground freezes. Place the bulbs, flat end down, at a depth of 4-5 inches from the top of the bulb (perhaps deeper if your soil is light), and then water them thoroughly. Mulch over the plantings to protect them from frost.

While you will see no evidence of growth, a lot will be going on under the surface. By December the bulbs will have sprouted in the moist soil and developed a root system. Come April when the soil thaws, the shoots will emerge from the ground.

Tulips bloom from mid-April to the end of May. There are thousands of varieties to choose from. These days, you can purchase a simple bunch of tulips for a few dollars at the grocery store, and perhaps a more elaborate assortment at your local florist. You can also buy packets of bulbs for short money pretty much anywhere, and grow your own!


By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
April 2005

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.