crazy about tulips

I just finished reading a book called Tulipomania by Mike Dash (New York, Crown Publishers, 1999). The subtitle is ‘The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused’.

The story takes place in Holland in the seventeenth century. It is a story about economics and finance as much as botany and gardening, and maybe has some relevance to the current global financial crisis. There were those who genuinely loved tulips, but the people responsible for making them a highly prized commodity did not love the flowers, they were after the money the flowers could be sold for. To this end they pursued highly speculative practices, and established a futures market with no security and no regulation - a boom that eventually had to bust. Before the inevitable bursting of the fragile bubble, the most sought after tulips cost as much as a house.

Tulips originated as wildflowers in the mountainous regions of central Asia. By the 11th century they were popular garden specimens in Persian and Turkish gardens, and had an important symbolic value, representing the holy flower of God. As the Turks swept westwards, they took the tulip with them.

The story of how the first tulip may have arrived in Holland is very funny. In 1562 a ship sailed into Antwerp harbour. It carried a cargo of cloth from Istanbul and included some tulip bulbs. The Flemish merchant who had commissioned the cargo found the bulbs. Thinking they were onions, he ate most of them, and planted the rest in his vegetable garden. To his disappointment next spring he discovered some strange delicate flowers instead of the hoped for onions.

He showed the flowers to a friend and horticulturist, who transplanted them, cultivated them and proceeded to write about them to his scientific colleagues throughout Europe. Thus the tulip became established in the Netherlands, where it hybridised into hundreds of different varieties. The United Provinces (as the Dutch region was called at the time) became very wealthy and tulips became very popular among the rich. Florists stocked them and sold them. Later these florists sold tulips that were still in the ground, by exchanging promissory notes. These notes were frenziedly sold and re-sold, for increasingly extravagant prices, until the market collapsed and tulips went out of fashion. It is ironical that the most highly prized tulips were striped because they carried a virus.

Other flower manias in history include dahlias in France in the 19th century, and the spider lily in 1985 in China. And re addiction to orchids – see previous post in this blog.


  1. It is a good thing tulips are not poisonous-apparently. Ha! I just can't imagine what they would taste like but surely he knew it was not an onion. Too funny.

  2. Anna Pavord has written a good book about Tulips - their history's fascinating.

    I see you're in Melbourne - we visited there 5 years ago. It's a lovely city.

  3. Hi Tina, thanks for your comment, I guess there's no accounting for taste. Or maybe he was just very hungry.

    Hi VP, thanks for the book reference - I will look it up - I'm getting more and more into garden history lately. I'm glad you liked Melbourne, I love living here.

  4. I love this book! Also the Anna Pavord. And I hadn't heard about the spider lily mania in China. It's easy to see why people get crazy about plants, but it gets weird when they become commodities (art as a commodity affects me the same way). I did hear that in the 1800s, there was a similar hyacinth mania in the Netherlands--you'd think they'd learned their lesson!

  5. Hi Pomona, your comment reminds me of the Bob Dylan song - "When will they ever learn? When will they e-e-ever learn?"


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