From Turbans to Rembrandt: the History of Tulips

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Few flowers are as immediately recognizable throughout the world as tulips. Their unique, elegant shape and bright coloring have made them a sought-after flower crop for hundreds of years. From the steppes of Central Asia to the marshy lowlands of the Netherlands, the history of tulips is rich and detailed.

The modern tulip plant traces its origin to the steppes of Central Asia, more specifically the Tian Shan mountain range. Tulips were first cultivated by the Persians, to whom we owe the name tulip; coming from the Persian tulipan (turban), owing to their resemblance to the headdress. Tulips rapidly became à symbol of wealth and sophistication: by the 11th century, members of the Persian aristocracy would plant vast gardens as displays of wealth.

Tulips were then spread to Anatolia by the Seljuks, establishing the Sultanate of Rum in the 12th century. Part of the massive Seljuk Empire that spanned from the Eastern Mediterranean to the mountains of Afghanistan, foreign governance gradually fragmented the empire. Seljuk authority over Anatolia waned until the 13th century, when Osman the 1st led a rebel Turkoman tribe to establish the Ottoman Empire.

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 signaled to Europe the arrival of a new neighboring superpower. The Ottoman Empire entered a golden age, developing culture, science, and architecture while cementing its standing as an economic giant. Among the lavish displays of wealth exhibited in their sprawling palaces, the Ottomans were particularly fond of tulips, with Suleiman the 1st being known for wearing one in his turban.

It’s through the courts of the Ottoman Empire that the tulip found its way to the rest of Europe. In 1554, the Austrian ambassador to the Ottoman court, Ogier Ghislain de Bubescq, took home à consignment of tulips with him after a visit to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

In 1593, Carolus Clusius, a botanist at the University of Leiden, would find that the tulip, usually grown in arid mountainous climates, adapted rather well to the Dutch climate. Tulips slowly grew in popularity in the southern Netherlands, until 1634. Coinciding with the Dutch Golden Age, the enrichment of port cities like Amsterdam pushed its residents to outdo each other in lavish displays of wealth. The tulip, unique among European flowers because of its vivid color, became essential to wealthy Dutch merchants.

From 1634 to 1637, tulips became the single most valuable commodity to be traded in the Dutch economy. The wild variability of the color scheme or “break” of the plants, due to a virus, contributed to the rarity and price of prime specimens. Records indicate that a single tulip bulb sold for 10,000 guilders, enough for a large house on Amsterdam’s most famous canals. This period became known as “Tulipmania” The Dutch even went as far as to open à futures market on tulip flowers, which eventually doomed the tulip trade.

The combination of a volatile market, uncertain returns, and the “hype” around the flowers slowing down as they were no longer nearly as rare and exclusive as they had been 2 years prior, put the nail in the coffin for Tulipmania. Today advances in agricultural technology have allowed the Netherlands to become the single largest producer in the world, contributing close to 60% of the global supply. While tulips may no longer be a symbol of wealth and refinement, they are found in gardens across North America, Europe, and Western Asia as a decorative and vibrant plant.

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