Something Borrowed: Tulips & the Heart of Holland

A woman in Amsterdam stopping to buy a dinner bouquet and a romantic in New York inspired to bring his sweetheart an armful of tulips maybe 3,600 miles apart, but they have this in common: the blooms they bring home will have begun their day in the Netherlands. Responsible for one quarter of the world’s horticulture exports, including fully half of all flowers traded, and eight of every ten bulbs sold on earth, the Netherlands is the true heart of the floral trade. Modern technology continually makes the system ever more efficient. But Holland tulips are something of a borrowed pleasure: they originated in Turkey.

In the Ottoman empire, the Sultans counted their silken blooms like jewels. Bulbs were ferociously guarded at first, but trade agreements and scientific interest in Europe occasionally led to the export of a small number of specimens, often with the promise that they would not be reproduced. But once a few bulbs were in the hands of gardeners, there was no way for the Turks to turn the tide. By the late 16th century, tulip cultivation was a European art as well.

It’s a seven year process for a tulip to blossom, but after that, it produces plantable bulbs each year, potentially extending the life of the original flower endlessly. But the flowers that the Turkish Sultans tended are not the only ones we know today; this is thanks to Carolus Clusius, a bloemist (floralscientist) who preferred the “rogue” tulips that blossomed with stripes or mottled colors instead of solid hues. He began breeding only the most exotic patterns: burgundy splashed on yellow, purple swaths on white, dribbles of hot pink on cream.

These Holland tulips became all the rage in 17th-century Europe—and, like the right handbag or shoe today—the must-have accessory. The wealthier you were, the more variety of pattern could be seen in your petals; the more uniform your tulip, the less you’d invested in its purchase. As with any prized commodity, a market sprang up, which developed into an insatiable demand. Flower-specific trade rules were established, but these guidelines did not include price caps—and soon, the guilders were flowing and competition was fierce.

The trick for any dealer was to make sure people wanted to buy their specific tulips. To do that, they created tulip “catalogs” (known as tulipboeken): bound collections of drawings and paintings of all the varieties a dealer had to offer. The renderings themselves became status symbols—most of the Dutch masters painted at least one tulip portrait. By the end of the 17th century, atleast 40 tulip catalogs had been published.

Unlike online shopping today, when you might easily return an item that doesn’t live up to its image, buying a tulip you saw in a painting was truly a speculative act. The bulbs could only be sold at the end of the summer, when the flower was no longer in bloom, and you were bound to the price you’d agreed to pay when you first saw the catalog. Once you had your purchase in hand, it would be months – well into the next spring – before you had any idea whether or not your bulb was a good one. The Dutch called this windhandel (trading the wind) because you were paying for something you could not yet verify. To borrow from Wall Street, this was the original futures market.

As we often see with our own stock market, current events and fluctuations in consumer confidence can send stocks on a rollercoaster ride. This was no less true in 17th century Holland, during a craze that was called “tulipmania.” Traders saw single bulbs going for the equivalent of 20 year’s income in 1636 – only to watch the value plummet by 90 percent in 1637. Many of the entrepreneurs who’d snapped up land for tulip farms at the height of the frenzy quickly discovered that having so many farms drove down prices.

Flowers ready for export: Aalsmeer Flower market, Holland.The aftermath of the tulip crash was a period of economic decline. But the country embraced the tulips themselves as national treasures, and citizens of all classes not only continued planting the (now eminently affordable) bulbs, but continued refining the varieties.

Interestingly, the rarest and formerly most prized of the multicolored specimens soon died out. It turned out that they’d been so unusual looking not because the original bloemist had been a clever breeder, but because of a virus that would end their lineage within a cycle or two.While those showstoppers of old are no longer available, Dutch botanists have long since cross-bred more hearty solid bulbs with bulbs from virus-free patterned breeds to yield the kinds of colorful variegation we see today.

Over the centuries, flowers in general, but especially tulips, have come to represent Holland as much as its iconic windmills. The Netherlands is home to Keukenhof, which grew from a plot of herbs (“the kitchen garden”) into what is by far the world’s largest garden with 7 million bulbs. And the floral auction house at Aaslmeer is the largest flower market on earth—with eight billion flowers passing through its halls each year.

And there’s a good reason why the Netherlands Foreign Trade Agency has a tulip as its logo: this is a nation where flowers brighten the economy as much as the landscape. In 2012, the floral trade alone brought the tiny nation more than 3 billion dollars in revenue – not bad for a borrowed treasure.

Tulipmania sweeps Holland every spring, and you can catch it on Vantage’s deluxe river cruise: Waterways of Holland & Belgium: Tulips, Windmills & Canals.

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