Tulips have a background steeped in legend and lore. They aren’t actually “from” the Netherlands (Holland) as most people believe. The genus Tulipa consists of about 100 species, most of which are native to southern Europe, North Africa, and Asia from Iran to Japan.
The most diversity in the Tulip genus is found in the Hindu Kush mountains and Kazakhstan. The Tulip is even the national flower of Iran and Turkey, where it features widely in local folk art. The Europeanized name, Tulip, probably came from the Turkish word for turban, “Tulliband,” because of the traditional custom of wearing blooms in one’s turban – or perhaps because the folds of thick petals on the Tulip resemble turbans.
How the Tulip made its way to Europe is still debated, but most scholars credit Oghier Ghislain de Busbecq, the Austrian Ambassador from Ferdinand I to the Sultan of Turkey, Suleyman the Magnificent, in the mid 1500’s. Busbecq was astonished to find highly sophisticated hybrids — not wild species — growing in the royal court at Turkey. The ambassador subsequently shipped some bulbs to Carolus Clusius (Charles de L’Ecluse) in Prague. Clusius eventually took over the botanical gardens in Leyden, ensuring the widespread distribution of Tulips in Europe.
Add some new tulips as well as other spring-blooming bulbs to the garden this fall!
But long before the Tulip reached western Europe, it had been in extensive cultivation. In Turkey, Tulips were bred for specific traits and were held to exacting standards, much like the judging criteria at Tulip clubs today. By the time Busbecq saw the Tulips in Turkey in the mid-16th century, this flower had been bred and selected over thousands of generations.
Like the Turks, the Dutch also had an image of the ideal Tulip. They were fascinated by the “broken” pattern of swirls on some petals, which was unlike that of any other flower. Dutch plantsmen began breeding these patterns widely in response to market demand . . . only to find, disastrously, that this unique feature was caused by a mosaic virus spread by aphids and other sucking insects! Crop losses were great, but interestingly, a modern (and entirely non-destructive!) version 0f this “breaking” was later developed, giving us today’s Rembrandt cultivars.
The Dutch fell in love with Tulips, both as a commercial venture and a beautiful flower. Popularity reached a fever pitch in the early 1600’s, a time now known as “Tulipmania.” New varieties — some of them not even grown yet! — were extensively bought, sold, and traded. Wildly inflated prices and bogus contracts caused the Tulip speculation bubble to burst, leaving many investors in financial ruin. However, this didn’t keep the beloved Tulip from becoming one of the Netherlands’ main industries. The Dutch climate and growing conditions are ideal for this bulb, and the Tulip continues to be a mainstay of Holland’s culture and commerce.