As we now enter into the depths of spring we can expect to see a proliferation of tulips gussying up corporate medians and public gardens everywhere. Think of it as a kind of landscape lingerie, institutional style: The traditional symbol of corporate good taste that says we care. It's easy to imagine Enron or BP lightening their doors with tulip beds of their own.
Traditionally, tulips were prized for their intense colors. Their history, it turns out, is just as intense and colorful.
Long, long before the world economies knew of dot com bubbles, hedge funds, and sub prime mortgages, long before fetish objects like Versace bags, Patek Phillipe watches, and the Eiffel Tower, there was tulip mania.
But first, a little on the flower itself: As hard as it is to imagine tulips in the wild they are a native plant to areas in Central Asia including parts of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Europe, Northeast China, and North Africa. They were first cultivated by the Turks around 1000 C.E. (The word tulip may come from a Turkish word for turban—or the Persian word for round, muslin, or gauze.) and introduced to Western Europe—and in particular, Holland—in 1593 by Viennese botanist Carolus Clusius. Though his interest in the flower was purely medicinal (it's actually poisonous), local interest was piqued by the plant's unique beauty and decorative potential. As Clusius refused to sell his stock, thieves would abscond with bulbs from his garden. It didn't take long for the flower to transform into a high status fetish object and burgeoning commercial enterprise. As an enterprise, it would proceed with extreme volatility. The Netherlands would become the tulip's commercial center and leading exporter. By 1637, the bubble created by those stolen bulbs would be ready to burst.
At the time, the Netherlands were prosperous in wealth and culture. When compared to its more severe neighbors—Spain, Italy, France—its people enjoyed a relatively extravagant liberty. Trade ships returning with exotic cargo could create fortunes as people hungered for the new and exotic. The elite, always looking to distinguish themselves, quickly took tulips from a mere botanical curiosity to extreme commodity. As the flowers became more coveted, prices would rise stratospherically. A single Viceroy bulb could sell for the modern equivalent of $1,250 and a Semper Augustus for twice that. Some varieties sold for more than an Amsterdam house. The allure of fast fortunes drew in people from all levels of society, including those less experienced with aggressive investing.
Traders were making huge profits every month. Just as has happened in our recent sub-prime mortgage crises, people leveraged themselves to get deeper into the game by selling businesses, homes, farm animals, and dowries. Bulbs were plentiful and accessible and a reckoning was inevitable. Even the government was powerless to stop it.
Then, the bubble burst. Supply overwhelmed demand and prices fell. Bankruptcies followed. Fortunes were lost. The Dutch government would later introduce trade restrictions. One hundred years later, the tulip would be partially responsible for the downfall of the Turkish Sultan Ahmed III: Tulips, once a national treasure of Turkey, had to be imported from Holland (still today's number one exporter in the world) a happenstance the Turkish people saw as humiliating. A revolt ensued and the Sultan was forced from his throne. His reign coincided with what would be known as the Tulip Era.
Below, Monticello's famous tulip-lined serpentine path.
Today, tulips are the world's third most popular flower, behind roses and chrysanthemums. There are about 3,000 known varieties.
Too kitschy and institutional perhaps by today's standards to be much use in a modern garden, still, there's something especially perky about the tulip. Its sentry-like posture, its upturned bells set as if to ring in the breeze, and its well endowed reproductive bits make it the ultimate embodiment of spring.
Tulips are also symbols of charity and imagination as well as tokens of passion and the perfect lover.
The title of this post is a reference to Sylvia Plath's Tulips.