Gardener's love for tulips has rich history

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

You think you like tulips. Yet your affections probably don't compare with those of the Dutch of 250 years ago, when "tulipomania" swept though Holland. Then, the best bulbs sold for more than their weight in gold.

People speculated money, jewels, wine, even their homes on prize bulbs. After four years, the Dutch government intervened and banned further speculation.

Tulips are so ingrained in our vision of Holland that you would think that the bulbs were native there. Not so. Garden tulips trace their lineage to western Asia. The first tulips reached Europe in 1554 when the Austrian ambassador to the sultan of Turkey admired the flowers and purchased seeds to bring back to Vienna. Within a few decades, tulips were popular throughout Europe, the plants demanding handsome prices.

Even after the tulipomania bubble burst in Holland, Dutch affection for tulips remained unshaken. What could it have been about the people or the culture that was responsible for this enduring affection? The maritime climate and rich, moist soils of Holland are quite different from the climate and the soils of the native home of the tulip. There, winters are frigid and snowy, summers are searing and dry, and the soil is poor and droughty.

How convenient for the Dutch that wild tulips adapted to dry summers by losing their leaves and resting. As wild tulips in western Asia are resting in the soil, their counterparts in Holland also are resting, in boxes in warehouses or en route for fall planting.

Part of the success of the Dutch tulip industry lies in Holland's cool, moist springs, which allow plenty of time for the sun to pump energy into the bulbs. The Dutch also developed many new varieties of tulips.

Among tulip varieties, "broken" tulips were once particularly popular with the Dutch. These are tulips -- you see them in old Dutch still-life paintings -- whose pale petals have streaks of dark colors. Breaks in tulips are due to virus infection, spread by aphids, which tulips can pick up over time.

Two practical lessons emerge from this little tulip story. First, give your tulips the well-drained soil they had in their native land. Second, if you like solid colors in your tulips, keep a close eye out for breaks. Dig up and destroy broken bulbs quickly, before aphids spread the virus to other bulbs.

Of course, if you are a tulip lover of the old Dutch school, just sit back and wait for your flowers to break.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: