Whatever the natural origin of the bulbs know around the world as “tulips” credit for their popularity over hundreds of years must go to the Dutch. First cultivated in Holland this region now exports about three billion tulip bulbs to world markets. Nearly a billion more are selected for growers within the Netherlands for florists and custom potting for indoor displays. Although there is a nearly universal appeal for the plants, the majority are exported to the United States followed by Germany and Japan.
For those fascinated by possible origins it’s generally conceded that tulips were first discovered in Central Asia close to the borders of Russia and China. They seem to have spread out from those mountainous, frigid and semi-arid lands into Mongolia and westward across similar climates in the northwest of Europe. A major movement followed into Armenia and then into Spain and France. Sometimes called “wild tulips”, those species number about 150 and most are noted for their adjustment to extremely hostile environments. Most have become miniature plants and bloom quickly after a short growth period.
Mountainous regions are unquestionably the “natural home” for tulips and with good reason since the plants depend on thick layers of protective snow and conservative amounts of water. Their adopted home in the Netherlands that came after 1600 A.D. is a low land that is more wet than cold. Consequently cultivation by the Dutch required very ingenious application of drainage and techniques developed by farmers in Turkey and areas now part of Russia.
One of the first major periods of proliferation for tulips was in the 1500’s at the time of the great Ottoman Empire in Persia. It is known that Turkish growers had been developing species of tulip bulbs by 1000 A.D. long before they had been introduced into areas of Europe.
The most dramatic moments in tulip history are traced to the European botanist, Carolus Clusius. He planted the first tulips in Holland and he had been head of the first botanical gardens in Western Europe. He closely guarded those first tulip plantings, refusing to even sell them to other bulb fanciers. The result was theft and what became the beginning of the Dutch tulip industry.
Initially tulips were too expensive for others than the very rich to cultivate. And, among the wealthy they soon became a “status symbol.” The very successful merchants and aristocrats proclaimed their beauty, extolled the rarity of various favorites and began a buying and selling phenomenon that lasted for several decades. This culminated in what was termed “tulipmania” and a market crash in 1637 that brought ruin to many of those who had speculated in the sale of bulbs.
Today’s dominant role by the Dutch and the Netherlands, in general, can be traced to this early hysteria by merchants and traders. The popularity of the plants, however, is more a product of their beauty and wide spectrum of colors. When planted with loving care in nurtured and well-tended garden plots, tulips bring their own reward!