Few flowers have been the object of such endless fascination as the tulip. Nowadays seen as a sturdy harbinger of spring, rearing its cheerful head in gardens across the country, the tulip was once an exclusive, luxury bloom wreathed in mystery and drama. At certain points in its history it was considered the preserve of royalty and connoisseurs, and subject to intense speculation – indeed, many a fortune was made and lost through desire for the humble tulip.
While today most people associate the tulip with the Netherlands, and indeed many people specifically travel to Amsterdam to view the spring tulip fields in bloom, the precise origins of the flower are swathed in mystery. Tulips seem to have originated in Asia Minor, where temperate, mountainous regions allow the bulb the cool, dormant period it needs to flourish. By around the year 1000, the blooms were being cultivated at the Turkish royal court, where they had already begun to demonstrate an unusual sway over their human admirers. For instance, the sultans of the Ottoman Empire prized tulips highly and subjected them to intense regulatory control; no one could trade tulips outside of the capital without royal permission, under pain of exile.
It was also in Turkey that they acquired the name by which they are now known – “tulip” coming from the Turkish word for “muslin” or “gauze” fabric. During the 1500s, tulips first came to the attention of European travellers, who encountered the bulbous blooms in the country’s gardens and courts. Tulip seeds and bulbs gradually began to make their way back to Europe, although it took some time before European gardeners learned to nurture the flowers properly to their full glory.
The botanist Carolus Clusius, who oversaw the medicinal beds of the Imperial Botanical Gardens of Vienna, is widely considered to have been the first great European tulip gardener. Clusius is said to have developed a huge collection of spectacular tulips, which he later brought with him to (what is now) the Netherlands when he assumed charge of the newly founded botanical gardens at Leiden University. It was an important step in the history of the tulip – and a fateful turning point in Dutch history – as the destinies of the flower and the European nation became forever intertwined.
At first the cultivation of tulips in Holland (as that portion of the Netherlands was then known) was restricted to the elite of society – royals, aristocrats, botanical connoisseurs and scholars. The exotic flowers were an indulgent rarity, an elegant symbol of wealth, taste and status. However, as news of these fantastical blooms spread through society, curiosity about – and a certain longing for – the blooms began to grow.
Perhaps as a result, some residents were compelled to steal large numbers of Clusius’s prized tulips from the university garden. This could be seen as the beginning of “tulip mania” (as it came to be known), which quickly began to spread amongst Dutch society at large. Over the period between 1634 and 1637, tulip prices rapidly began to climb, especially for rare varieties and unusual colourings. People soon began to speculate intensely, sometimes wildly, in the future of the bulbs, which were quickly becoming one of Holland’s most popular and profitable exports.
The trend was buoyed by the fact that this was the Dutch Golden Age, when international trade was contributing great wealth to Dutch society and newly rich merchants in particular were eager to show off extravagant symbols of their status. The booming optimism of the age combined with the demand for the fashionable tulips until, at the peak of tulip mania, single bulbs of some of the more valuable varieties (such as the Semper Augustus) were being sold for astronomical sums, equivalent to several years’ salary for common people.
Many people made their fortunes on the back of the tulip-trading frenzy, but as is the case with any intense speculation, quite a few gambled and lost everything as well, especially when tulip prices finally collapsed in 1637. Although tulip mania represented a strange and in some ways exceptional chapter in Dutch history, the period did have an enduring legacy for the economy and society. The Netherlands is still a world leader in the production of tulips, and the flowers are still amongst the nation’s top exports.
Every spring the vast tulip farms in areas such as the Noordoostpolder, the Bollenstreek and the Kop van Noord-Hollan are flooded with colour as far as the eye can see, and many people travel to the area for the sole purpose of viewing these huge fields of tulips. Not only is it a spectacular vision of nature in all its multi-coloured glory, but also an intense reminder of the impact these beautiful flowers have had on the development of the Dutch nation.