Madame Hodson, Lord Wellington, Cardinal Wisseman, General Pelissier and the Queen of Sheba. Besides grand titles what, you may ask, do these subjects have in common? Collectively, they enjoy a good shaking free of debris, prefer being preserved in cold climates and only travel internationally via shipping container before being coaxed out of their beds by damp conditions. They’re tulip varieties, of course!
I, as I’m sure many of you do, take great pleasure in having cut tulips placed around the home. Usually, I’ll pick them up at my local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s wrapped in brown paper and ready to be arranged. As their blooming season is in full effect, I’ve become rather fascinated with Tulipomania. Let’s peel back the petals of these silken sirens and get to know them a little better, shall we?
Legend has it that they were first spotted by a Westerner in the 1550s when Austrian Ambassador to Turkey, Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, saw them flourishing in the gardens of Constantinople. His interpreter was fervently explaining that their bright hues were reminiscent of Turkish tülbend, or turban, and so the moniker tulipam was born.
Busbecq returned and gifted Carolus Clusius, former Prefect of the Imperial Medicinal Garden of the Austrian emperor Maximilian II (well aren’t you fancy, Carolus?), some bulbs. Carolus journeyed back to his native Holland with the tulip bulbs in tow and after seeing how the gnarled seed transformed into a gorgeous bloom, demand for the tulip exploded. Bulbs were now just as sound an investment as diamonds and their market value reflected that at Tulipomania’s height between 1634-37. It was said that Rubens, one of the most notable artists of his time, could only afford to gift his wife a single bulb for her birthday!
Overnight, anyone with a parcel of land was in on the tulip trade. Noblemen, chimney sweeps, footmen and maid servants were all harvesting bulbs. Some of these tulips caught a virus and suddenly changed colors, it was all too much for the Dutch. Prices for these fickle bulbs skyrocketed, an Admiral Liefkens sold for $750 followed by $1,825 being shilled out for a Viceroy and a Semper Augustus going for $4,000. It seemed to good to be true! Suddenly everyone was selling these colorfully named blooms but no one was buying them. Estates were mortgaged, tools discarded and businesses sold. The government stepped in and regulated the market paving the way for Dutch family companies to become the top producers of tulips the world over.
The iconic tulip fields of Sassenheim, Haarlem and Hillegom were cultivated by the likes of N. & J. Roozen, Ltd., J. J. Grullemans & Sons and other barons of bulbs. After World War II, a tulip tour de force was achieved when Piet Bakker began selling gift boxes of bulbs in 1946. He recounted to Town & Country in 1978 that “the Dutch were tremendously grateful to America and the rest of the world for their help during and after the war. Everyone wanted to send something in return. But what could we afford?” The treasured gift laid in tulips, the millions of bulbs left over from the war. Sending them in gratitude became a widespread Dutch gesture and soon launched Bakker’s company into the mass retail trade.
Now we can all indulge in a pretty pick-me-up at our neighborhood flower shop or grocery store! I’d love to see the vibrant fields of tulips next spring, have any of your been to the Netherlands to experience them? If you have any travel recommendations or tips of tulip fields here in the US, I’d love to hear them!