What do you know about the history of Tulips? Perhaps you know that Tulip is the national flower of the Netherlands? Maybe the fact that there are THOUSANDS of registered varieties (including one that I named)? Well there’s even more to this amazing bulb, and a lot of the really interesting stuff happened centuries ago… Let’s explore!
Where do Tulips come from?
Did you know that the Tulip actually originated from Southern Europe and Central Asia? They were most likely cultivated in Persia (Iran) since the 10th century, derived from species. And this was way before they became popular in the West. In the wild, they’re usually found in temperate grasslands and mountainous areas – very well suited to Asia!
Following a visit to the lands of the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey), travellers and merchants brought the flower back to Europe in the 16th century. The Dutch, in particular, became obsessed. Tulips were then written about by prominent authors of the time, featured in paintings and weaved into decor at festivals. This was just the beginning of ‘Tulip Mania’.
Tulips: the Amazon Alexa craze of the 17th century
Tulip Mania reached its peak in the winter of 1637, when people all over the Netherlands were going crazy for this vibrant flower. It was insanely fashionable to be growing Tulips in your garden – you were basically nobody if you weren’t in possession of some Tulips of some kind!
At this point, a single Tulip bulb could sell for 10 times the annual income of a skilled crafts-worker, and in some cases, Tulips were used as currency because they were so highly valued! One British journalist, Charles Mackay, wrote in his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds that he saw 12 acres of land being sold for one “Semper Augustus” bulb.
This economic bubble was the first of its kind, hundreds of years before the dot-com bubble of the 90s, and even before the disaster of the South Sea Company in the 18th century. However, though the bursting of these bubbles caused economic crisis, the demise of Tulip Mania did not severely impact the Dutch economy, which was one of the strongest in the world at that time.
You could say that Tulip Mania was more of a socio-economic phenomenon, a bit like Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant, which is so popular that Amazon announced in January 2019 that it had sold over 100 million Alexa devices!
Some Alexa-enabled devices, which are incredibly popular as Christmas gifts, actually sold out due to high demand during the festive period of 2018, and wouldn’t be back in stock until the following year, causing many customers to find other unofficial sources to buy the devices, even if it meant buying at a higher price. So, if you weren’t smuggling Tulips, it might be an Alexa instead!
The Netherlands is known as ‘the flower shop of the world’
The Tulip is the national flower of Turkey, Afghanistan and Hungary, but it is most widely known as the national flower of the Netherlands. This is probably because the Dutch put enormous effort into cultivating great fields of Tulips in a variety of colours to sell the bulbs, but also to produce beautiful displays that people from all around the world flock to see.
Just look at the Keukenhof Gardens, the world’s largest bulb garden, covering 32 hectares and growing more than seven million spring flowering bulbs! It’s only open eight weeks per year, but this is an example of how much The Netherlands love their Tulips and other bulbs.
Tulip festivals still take place throughout The Netherlands in the spring, as well as other areas of the world where there is a strong Dutch connection, like New York (originally New Amsterdam) and Holland in Michigan.
You can also visit legendary flowers markets in The Netherlands, like Aalsmeer, which hosts the biggest flower auction in the world!
The Rainbow Tulip
If there’s one Tulip you should be growing next spring, it’s the Rainbow Tulip.
This variety of the Parrot Tulip is stunning in appearance, producing a rainbow of colours in its petals, hence its name. This is a result of accidental breeding, and the colours actually vary throughout its life: in its early life, the shade intensity is bright like the morning sun, then after a few weeks the intensity of the colours has softened like the evening twilight, “kaleidoscoping” all the way!
It’s a rare plant, however. Last year there were only enough produced for 1,000 collections. This year there is only enough worldwide for 18,000 collections. However, it is available in the UK through certain retailers! You can grow the Rainbow Tulip whether you’re experienced gardener or a beginner, and whether you have a sprawling garden or just a patio container. It’s perfect for those who love to bring an artsy or creative look to their garden, so if that sounds like you, why not give it a try?
Did you find out something interesting about the history of Tulips from reading this post? Let me know in the comments section!
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook – and writes a plant-focused Substack called Grow This, Not That.