Tulips: The Allure Never Fades

There are thousands of tulip hybrids and cultivars in a breathtaking diversity of colors and shapes. With names like Suncatcher, American Dream and Flaming Parrot, there is a tulip for every taste!

Before tulips became indelibly associated with the Dutch, they were the flower of the Ottoman Empire. Found growing wild in the valleys of the Tien Shan Mountains, in Central Asia, tulips were cultivated in Constantinople (now Istanbul) as early as the mid-11th century.  Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II maintained an army of 900 gardeners to tend the blooms in his lavish gardens. While it’s likely that the Persians were cultivating tulips well before that, one of Emperor Ferdinand the First’s ambassadors to the Ottoman Empire is believed to have introduced them to northwest Europe in the 1500s.

Carolus Clusius

Tulips spread quickly through Europe, and they caught on nowhere as much as in the Netherlands. In the autumn of 1593, botanist Carolus Clusius planted tulips in his garden at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. It turned out to be the birth of the Dutch tulip industry.

Despite its long war for independence from Spain, beginning in the mid-16th century, the Netherlands developed as a hub for international commerce through port cities like Amsterdam. The new wealth coincided with a newfound fascination for the exotic, and a phenomenon known as “Tulip Mania” engulfed the merchant class for a time in the 17th century. Tulip exchanges were set up on the stock exchanges of Amsterdam and other cities, and Dutch speculators spent extravagantly on tulip bulbs until the bottom fell out of the market in the 1630s. Contrary to popular myth, however, the burst of the tulip bubble didn’t wreak widespread financial ruin — though it does offer an object lesson in greed.

Semper Augustus tulip

Driving Tulip Mania was a particular appetite for “broken bulbs,” with their striking variations of colors and patterns. People didn’t know it at the time, but the stunning blooms were caused by a mosaic virus that, over successive generations, weakens the bulbs’ ability to multiply or blossom. In the frenzy of the time, it didn’t matter. Broken tulips were immortalized in paintings, and fetched absurdly high prices … the red-and-white “Semper Augustus” was the most famous of them. It’s said that a single bulb cost 10 thousand guilders — about $6,000. Against all odds, a tiny handful of these broken varieties still exist, such as the Zomerschoon, which has been around since 1620. While many modern varieties are bred to resemble the exquisite, but fatally flawed, flowers, a few breeders are focused on creating new “broken tulip” varieties.

Dutch women preparing tulip bulbs for eating.

Like onions, tulips are a member of the lily family. They’re not poisonous, but they’re not particularly good to eat, either. Nonetheless, in the darkest days of World War II, when food shortages gripped the Netherlands, people turned to them for sustenance. Growers marketed the bulbs as food, and doctors even issued instructions on how to prepare them safely. 

The Netherlands is the global center of tulip breeding, and more than a third of global plant and flower exports pass through the Netherlands, most of them grown there. Its famed bulb region, or Bollenstreek, draws millions of tourists each spring to gardens like the Keukenhof, one of the world’s largest flower gardens. 

The Keukenhof Gardens in the Bollenstreek region of the Netherlands is a splendid showcase of bulbs.

Tulip festivals also draw crowds in American cities settled by Dutch immigrants, including Holland, Michigan and Pella, Iowa.

Our tulips come from Fluwel Bulb Company, a Dutch company with a wonderful tradition of innovative and gorgeous varieties. 

With so many varieties to choose from, tulip gardens are always a feast for the eyes!