Tulip bulbs have a long and unusual history. Tulip flowers likely received their name due to the resemblance to the turban. This member of the lily family is planted in autumn and blooms in spring. The variety of sizes and colors available due to hybridization make the tulip a popular choice in numerous garden settings.
Tulips originated in mountainous regions of Asia, near the Himalayans. Records show tulips in cultivation in Turkey over a thousand years ago. In the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, tulips appear in Bibles, poems and songs. The sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Magnificent, had tulips in the gardens at court in Constantinople.
The ambassador for Ferdinand the First, the Austrian Emperor, to the Ottoman Emperor Suleiman, was intrigued by tulips. His name was Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq. He wrote about tulips and sent bulbs and seeds to the head of the Vienna Imperial Gardens, Carolus Clusius, in 1554. The first tulip flowers introduced into Europe, illustrated by Conrad Gesner in 1559, were red and long-stemmed.
Introduction to the Netherlands
Carolus Clusius helped found Western Europe's first botanic garden at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. In 1593 he planted tulip bulbs he brought with him from Vienna in the gardens. He refused to share his bulbs, and when he did, he sold his tulips for high prices. As a result, the coveted bulb was stolen from his garden, and this began the Dutch tulip trade.
The rarity of the tulip prompted a phase in the Netherlands of extremely high prices. Bulbs were sold for what corresponds to over $2,000 in the modern United States. People cashed in their families' valuables, thinking to buy tulip bulbs and enter the trade. From 1634 on, traders sold bulbs by weight, making large sums of money. The broken-striped tulips fetched the highest prices. These tulips actually got their unusual patterns from a virus, and only tulips hybridized to mimic these looks are allowed in cultivation today. In 1637 the tulip market crashed when the buyers no longer paid the exorbitant prices.
Today the Netherlands produce 3 billion tulip bulbs annually, exporting approximately 2 billion of those. Even though tulips' natural habitat consists of mountainous regions, the Dutch adapted approximately half of their bulb-producing acres to tulips. Over 3,000 cultivars are available, including historic varieties developed as far back as 1593, and subdivided into groups based on the tulip flower's bloom time, form and size.