Tulips were introduced to Holland from the Turkish Empire in the fifteenth century. The elegant needle shapes of these first tulips soon gave rise to a multitude of colors and forms. Growing tulips became all the rage. Hybridizing became serious business as well as a hobby for the well-to-do.
New tulip varieties were greatly sought after by society's elite, creating an enormous demand that fueled a speculative bubble of unimaginable magnitude. By 1634, the legitimate business of the market had been overwhelmed by pure speculation. At the height of "Tulip Mania," three bulbs of 'Semper Augusta' brought 30,000 guilders, an amount that then could have purchased three of the most expensive canal houses in Amsterdam.
The tulip market crashed in 1637, as speculative bubbles do. People lost fortunes overnight. And yet, the popularity of the tulip never wavered. Prices became more reasonable, but new varieties were still eagerly anticipated. Cut tulips were a must on every parlor table, and people planted tulip bulbs by the score in their gardens every fall.
The Dutch market for tulip bulbs became a worldwide market, with gardeners from every country wanting at least a few of these cheerful blooms in their spring gardens. As faster shipping and refrigeration facilities became available, both bulbs and cut tulips found their way from the fields of Holland to gardens and vases all over the world.
In addition to the actual flowers and bulbs, tulip images are important in Dutch art and decorative wares. While van Gogh is more famous for his sunflowers, many of the most famous still life paintings of the Dutch Masters feature tulips. Botanical illustrations of tulips are also readily found, and tulip motifs are common on decorative items and porcelain dishes, such as Holland's famous Delft ware.
Tulip hybridizers have continued their efforts since those early days of Tulip Mania, bringing thousands of new must-have varieties to us. Everybody has their favorites, from classic goblet-shaped red 'Appeldoorn' or 'Red Emperor', to fanciful and frilly Rococo and Parrot tulips. My personal favorites are the little botanical tulips, both true species types like T. turkistiana and hybrids such as T. humilis 'Little Beauty'.
Just as with hybridizing daylilies or other plants, breeding new tulip varieties requires a deft touch and good record keeping. Pollen laden anthers from one plant are dabbed onto the stigma of another, and the resulting seeds are carefully harvested. Seedlings are grown out and evaluated, and the best ones are kept for additional trials or repeated breeding efforts. It may take a decade before a promising seedling becomes a commercially available new introduction.
Although nothing may match the Tulip Mania of old, new introductions are greeted enthusiastically each year. The Queen herself christened the new tulip 'Spring Garden' at the opening ceremony for the Keukenhoff's 60th season. A DGer in the bulb business tantalized participants in the Bulbs Forum (subscribers only) this spring with photos of the brilliantly yellow 'Spongebob' tulip, available this coming season. And a major airline just gave its name to the new cream and green veridiflora hybrid 'KLM'.
What will the future bring? There's an ongoing quest to produce a true black or a true blue tulip. Dark tulips such as 'Queen of the Night' are a deep, velvety deep purple that appears nearly black. They are especially striking with yellow and orange companions, and they are very elegant on their own against a simple background.
True blue tulips, on the other hand, are still pretty much fantasy rather than reality. All other colors (white, red, orange, pink, green, yellow, purple) are represented in tulip genetics, but blue is simply not part of the mix. A truly blue tulip might someday result from genetic engineering rather than hybridizing, and that prospect produces very mixed reactions among gardeners and scientists.
Now is a great time to look for early-bird sales from bulb suppliers! Those little "*new!*" tags on selections always catch my eye. Sometimes it turns out to be a variety that's just "new" to that supplier, other times it's a newly released hybrid. While you might get better bargains at the end of the season, the best of the new varieties usually sell out quickly, so jump on them while you can! If you live in an area that's too warm for "regular" tulips, you don't have to miss out. Look for new hybrids of "species" or "botanical" tulips, little treasures that can take the heat. With a mix of older tried and true tulips and exciting new hybrids in your garden, you'll soon become a "Tulip Maniac."
Long live Tulip Mania!
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Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus. Special thanks to the Tulip Museum in Amsterdam.
For another look at the history of tulips in the Netherlands, see this DG article by DutchLady. Although my visit was before the height of the blooming season, the Keukenhof provides an unrivaled display of tulips and other spring flowering bulbs.
This article was originally published on November 5th, 2009