I discovered the history of the tulip watching a play at the National Theatre in London. The adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s novel, The PowerBook, sticks in my mind because of the mesmerising performance from Fiona Shaw. A meditation on love and the transformative nature of fiction, it also features an androgynous Turkish woman who ‘traded’, for which read ‘smuggled’, much coveted tulip bulbs out of Turkey to the Netherlands. She did so by putting them into her trousers and disguising them as testicles.
Several things have stayed with me from that evening: good theatre can really be very good; the origin of the tulip was Turkey not the Netherlands; and that tulip bulbs can double as testicles when being smuggled across land borders. While many in the audience were focused on the intrigues of the lovers who were central to the play, I was making a mental note to research why someone would smuggle a tulip bulb in their pants. That’s how I found out about ‘tulipmania’.
To start at the beginning. Tulips were originally a wild flower that grew across Central Asia. They were cultivated in Turkey perhaps as early as 1000 AD, and became very, very popular during the Ottoman Empire. The bulbs made it to the Netherlands via a circuitous route in the 17th Century. At that time Leiden was one of Europe’s premiere centres of learning, their botanical gardens the subject of envy. This attracted Austrian biologist, Carolus Clusius, to take up the position of director of the Hortus Botanicus at Leiden University in the 1590’s.
Clusius’ old friend and fellow plant fancier, Ogier Ghiselain de Busbecq, was at the time Austrian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). It was de Busbecq who obtained the bulbs and sent them to Clusius. History remains silent on whether these particular bulbs were smuggled while disguised as testicles. So it was that the very first tulip bulbs arrived in the Netherlands; they were planted in Leiden University’s botanical gardens from where their fame spread with tragicomic effect before leading to utter disaster.
Fast forward a decade or two, and everywhere you look in the Netherlands you find tulipmania. ‘Mania’ is rarely a good word, it implies an uncharacteristic type of obsessive behaviour defying all reason. Not wishing to offend my Dutch friends, exempting King’s Day and New Year’s Eve when all Hell breaks loose here, that is not the type of behaviour for which they are known. Resolute, conservative, notoriously cautious with money, Calvinist work ethic behaviour bordering on the dour? Yes. Becoming manic about a flower? No. It just doesn’t fit the national stereotype.
Yet what happened in the Netherlands in the 1630s can only be described as collective mania, and at the heart of it was the humble tulip bulb. Imagine, a man visits your house, he’s hungry and spots what he believes is an onion. He slices it and eats it before realising the enormity of his error. The ‘onion’ turns out to be a tulip bulb of enormous value. The man is arrested and thrown in jail. This is a true story, and one that illustrates what happened during tulpenwoede (tulip madness).
Tulips became so sought after, so desirable, that people were willing to pay vast amounts of money even for normal bulbs. Rare bulbs were worth a small fortune, literally. A rare bulb of exquisite colour called Semper Augustus could exchange hands for up to 5000 guilders, the same price as a sizeable house in Amsterdam. People went crazy for tulips and the money changing hands was equally crazy. People sold their houses, farms, possessions and even their clothes to purchase bulbs. Tulip traders, just like today’s stock traders, could be found throughout the Netherlands trading bulbs and even tulip ‘futures’.
The trade peaked in the winter of 1636, when a Violetten Admirael van Enkhuizen bulb was sold for an all time high of 5200 guilders. Then, in February 1637, panic swept the tulip trade and the madness came to a brutally abrupt end. As quickly as tulipmania had started the whole market crashed – think 1929, Wall Street traders throwing themselves out of windows, type of crash. As recent history shows, unregulated financial speculation fuelled by vast greed for fast profits rarely ends well. Thousands of people lost out and the tulip went back to being just a flower.
Given this history, it is remarkable that the Dutch didn’t just throw all the remaining bulbs into the ocean. Instead they are still grown and still making money on the international markets. Millions of flowers and bulbs are sold for export each year, making the Netherlands the world’s largest exporter. In fact, the Dutch control about 50 percent of the global flower and bulb trade. A flower can be cut in the Netherlands in the morning and be on sale in New York the same day.
Each year the Dutch grow around 4.3 billion tulip bulbs; 2.3 billion are grown into flowers. Of these, 1.3 billion are sold in the Netherlands, the other 1 billion are sold in Europe and around the world. The value of all these flowers and bulbs runs into billions of euros. It’s as if tulipmania never ended.
* Much of the historical detail of tulipmania comes from The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused by Mike Dash