They come in sizes both big and small, and in a kaleidoscope of colors ranging from brightest yellow and white to dark red and black to a variety of wild color combinations and petal variations. For the gardener, few flowers compare with the tulip when variety is the goal. But how did one little plant become so varied in nature? The answer lies in its history.
The country of Holland will forever be entwined with the history of the tulip bulb, but in actuality this most versatile of bulbs originated in the dry, dusty climes of Central Asia. Before being discovered by the Dutch in the early 1500s, it first spread northward toward the Russian border and eastward toward China before catching the eye of botanists and gardeners in Turkey.
The ancient Turks were the first to catch tulip fever. The great gardeners of the Ottoman Empire first began cultivating wild tulip bulbs as early as 1000 AD. The sultans of the time associated the flower with love, power and wealth, and to this day the tulip still reigns supreme as the national flower of Turkey.
Tulip mania took the lowly bulb to new heights. While widely cultivated in Turkey for centuries, it wasn't until the 1500s when tulip mania caught fire in Europe that the flower gained worldwide fame. With the discovery of the Americas and the exploration of trade routes to China, Europeans developed a taste for exotic flora and fauna. Nothing, however, seemed to catch the general interest like the tulip bulb. By the late 1630s, one Viceroy tulip bulb cost the equivalent of 23 tons of cheese, or roughly $1,200 in today's terms.
The tulip's wild popularity also contributed to its variety. Anyone who's looked through a bulb catalog might be amazed at the variety available today, but during the peak of Tulip mania--1634 to 1637--up to 1,300 varieties were available to European gardeners, provided they could afford them. Sadly, many of these varieties no longer exist.
Many domesticated versions of the tulip exist on the market today, but for the botanical purist, roughly 150 varieties of wild tulip are still available. Regardless of the type, the United States remains the leading importer of tulip bulbs.