When we think of Holland, we think of tulips but the story of the tulips does not start in Holland. The tulip is native to Central Asia and was introduced to Holland by the Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius who in 1593 brought a selection of tulip and other bulbs with him and planted them in his garden in Leiden.
Look, these tulips like me, they are looking at me! Tulips usually stand up very stiff and tall and they look neither to the left nor the right, but straight up toward the sky.
The history of the tulip is filled with intrigue, skulduggery, thievery, instant fortunes and broken hearts. If only tulips could talk, they’d tell many interesting and twisted tales about their history!
The first Tulipomania occurred way back in the 16th century in Turkey – which was the time of the Ottoman Empire and of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566). Tulips became highly cultivated blooms, developed for the pleasure of the Sultan and his entourage. During the Turkish reign of Ahmed III (1703-30) it is believed that the tulip reigned supreme as a symbol of wealth and prestige and the period later became known as ‘Age of the Tulips’. One famous story tells of a Sultan who spent too much on a tulip festival which ultimately led to him “losing his head.”
Back in Holland, Clusius’ secretive approach to his flower bulbs and garden, attracted the attention of some dishonest neighbours who stole some of the bulbs right out from under his nose and sold them. This was the rather inauspicious start of the now heralded Dutch bulb trade.
Over the next few decades tulips began to grow in popularity and became something of a fad amongst the wealthy. The bulbs began to increase in price until a single bulb could be sold for a sum equal to the cost of a modest home. Thus began the Dutch Tulipomania, the world’s first futures market.
Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Flemish diplomat sent by the Emperor Ferdinand I as ambassador to Suleiman in 1554 and credited with dispatching the first tulips into Western Europe, also described hyacinths and other bulbs and exotic plants as well as “tulipam” growing in the gardens of Adrianople and Constantinople. Clusius was one of the botanists that Busbecq dispatched bulbs to. Clusius was in Vienna at the time, looking after the imperial medicinal garden for Maximilian II.
Hyacinths were first mentioned by that great epic poet of Greece, Homer, in the Iliad (ascribed to some date between the 10th and 8th centuries BCE) as being among the flowers which formed the couch of Hera, queen of heaven and earth.
The formidable Mohammed II, who conquered Constantinople in 1453, and Suleiman the Magnificent were both devoted to gardens, and hyacinths, tulips, and many other bulbs were extensively cultivated.
In Leiden Clusius helped create the earliest formal botanical garden in Holland, and one of the earliest in Europe. Clusius observed the phenomenon of tulips “breaking” — a phenomenon discovered in the late 19th century to be due to a virus — causing the many different flamed and feathered varieties, which led to the speculative tulip mania of the 1630s. So Clusius laid the foundations of Dutch tulip breeding and the bulb industry today.
With the Dutch so preoccupied with tulips in the early part of the 17th century, few breeders took an interest in hyacinths and these preferred single hyacinths, working to achieve similarity and symmetry of flowers on the spike and purity of colours. By the end of the 17th century, however, work had began on developing double-flowering hyacinths and the resultant flowers fetched exceptionally high prices. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, double hyacinths became the world’s most popular bulb.
In France, Madame de Pompadour was a keen devotee of these fragrant blooms, ensuring that Louis XV effected extensive hyacinth plantings in his various palace gardens. It is said that in 1759 Madame had no less than 200 hyacinths grown “on glasses” during the winter as well.
Clusius also travelled widely, including to Spain and Portugal, where he described 200 new plants, including the daffodils. He sent a letter to Italian botanist Matteo Caccini with a drawing of a daffodil.
Look, the great yellow daffodils dance and bow and shake their fluffy heads. And the beautiful narcissus blossoms are white cheerfulness and have a sweet fragrance. They are such little show-offs with their multiple rings of petals!
We will call you daffy-down-dilly!
Sven, what dear little bears. I am so glad we live in their house!
By William Wordsworth
I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretch’d in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed — and gazed — but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.