Tulips add beauty to gardens around the world

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Print of Rembrandt-type stripd tulips


Perhaps no country in the world is more associated with any flower than Holland, or the Netherlands, is with the tulip.

Most people think the tulip originated in that country, but its origins are actually far to the east in Turkey.

As I mentioned last week, I had the rare opportunity this spring to visit the spectacular flower bulb production fields there, but I also had the chance to participate in a wonderful floral exhibition called Floriade.

It is equivalent to a world's fair of horticulture.

Floriade has displays from some 100 countries and suppliers from throughout the world. It covers 163 acres and will remain as a beautiful park when the exposition closes in October 2012.

One of the countries represented is Turkey. The Turkish presentation told the tulip story from its perspective. One part of the story is that Holland celebrated its 400th year anniversary of diplomatic relationships with Turkey this year.

No tulips grow naturally within 500 miles of Holland. They are native to eastern Asia, southern Europe and North Africa. They are the national flower of both Iran and Turkey. The Turks were cultivating tulips by about 1000 A.D.

Carolus Clusius is credited with introducing the tulip to Holland in 1593 when he became the head of the new Leiden Botanical Garden and started planting the bulbs. In my visit to Holland, I saw the Leiden Botanical Garden, which still flourishes today, along with tulips that would be similar to the ones he grew.

No one knew how wildly popular the plants would become. They were so rare that only the wealthy could afford them, and they quickly became a status symbol for the prosperous Dutch.

By 1624, tulips became so popular that one renowned white and maroon "Rembrandt-type" tulip bulb sold for 4,500 guilders ($2,250), plus a horse and carriage. Other records show that a handful of bulbs sold for the equivalent of a large house.

"Tulipmania" spread and reached its zenith in 1637. It was known as "The Foolish Tulip Trade" or "The Wild Tulip Speculation" and is often compared with the U.S. stock market craze and crash of the 1920s.

So much like today's computer crashes, "Tulipmania" ended because of a virus. The tulips that were most highly sought after were the distinctive Rembrandt-type — or bicolors with patterns. These had distinctive flames or broken stripes of color that gave each flower its unique pattern.

Solid-colored tulips were not fashionable nor highly sought after. The striping was what made the flowers so desirable, but also unpredictable. It turned out that the striped tulips were infected with a devastating virus.

These diseases eventually caused the bulbs to die. If you had paid thousands of dollars for a single bulb that soon died, you would not be sucked into the speculation a second time.

Dutch growers are very careful to avoid any problems in their fields.

Each day, trained workers scour the fields and quickly eliminate any flowers or plants that show any symptoms of disease. Modern, striped tulips are genetically stable, flamed look-alike hybrids that duplicate the famous bicolor, broken-stripe appearance.

The Dutch dominate world tulip production with more than 23,000 acres grown each year. Some 3 billion bulbs are grown annually for both garden and cut flowers. The extensive color range covers almost all colors except black (really, dark maroon) and blue (a faint violet hue).

There are more than 100 described species of tulips; most cultivated ones are from one species — Tulipa gesneriana.

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