According to the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center, Holland produces 60 percent of the commercially grown flowers in the world. The Netherlands grows 9 billion flower bulbs per year, over 3 billion of which are tulips. The history of the Dutch bulb trade owes its origins to the friendship between two gardeners, one a botanist in Leiden and the other an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Tulips do not originate in the Netherlands. In fact, they are native to high mountain regions which could not be more different from the below-sea-level sandy fields of Holland. Turkey is commonly referred to as the birthplace of tulips, but the reference is to the ancient Turkish, or Ottoman, Empire, not the modern nation of Turkey. The genetic heartland of tulips is central Asia, in the Tien-Shan and Pamir Alai mountains near the Pakistan city of Islamabad.
Wild tulip varieties spread through Russia and China, and some wild species are found in the southern reaches of Europe. However, no wild tulips are known to have lived in the Netherlands. Today, over 40,000 acres of the Netherlands are used for commercial flower production, with well over half of those used for growing tulips and the remainder for other Dutch bulbs like ornamental allium, iris, hyacinth and daffodils.
The Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center reports that tulips were being actively cultivated in the Ottoman Empire in 1000 A.D., and most likely earlier. The poets Omar Khayam and Rumi wrote of tulips in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the early 1500s, the physician Carolus Clusius (Charles de l'Ecluse) was appointed as Prefect to the Imperial Herb Garden in Vienna. His fellow gardener Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq was appointed Ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I to the Ottoman Empire. Busbecq described the beautiful flowers he was seeing in letters back to Vienna, and ignited Clusius' lifelong pursuit of tulip seeds and bulbs.
While Busbecq represented the Holy Roman Empire, his friend Clusius was a Protestant--a point of significance to the Dutch bulb industry. Clusius could not comfortably remain in Vienna, but moved to Frankfurt in 1577 and then to Leiden in 1593, where his religious convictions were met with greater toleration. As Horticulture Prefect in Leiden, Clusius founded the world's first known botanical gardens dedicated to aesthetically pleasing flowers rather than medicinal and food plants.
Clusius protectively raised his small but growing collection of tulips. Tradition has it that local merchants stole bulb stock from these gardens, forming the basis of the Dutch bulb trade.
Tulips crept into public view in the Netherlands around 1600, and these rare, brightly-colored floral gems quickly caught the market's imagination. As Dutch growers began to develop tulip fields, brilliant flame-striped sports and color variations emerged. These variants were later attributed to a virus which caused long-term harm despite its short-term beauty, but at the time, they gave rise to intense market demand which led to economic speculation which swiftly spiraled to vastly inflated proportions, with bulb futures trading for the price of a house.
In 1637, the effect of tulip-mania collapsed, leaving many speculators penniless, but vast acreage in production of the widest variety of tulips the world had ever seen.
Species tulips--those closest to the wild varieties and early cultivars first seen by Busbecq in the Ottoman Empire--are available today through a number of specialty bulb purveyors. Species tulips are smaller and more modest colors than their hybrid cousins, but they can be beautiful in massed plantings, and often naturalize, returning year after year and even expanding under proper conditions.
Cultivars of Tulipa clusiana have delicate vase-like flowers of yellow, red, or pink, while Tulipa humilis types run to orchid and purple, resembling crocus blooms. Other historical tulips still available today include Rembrandt tulips, which are genetically-stable replicas of the flame-striped tulips that started tulip-mania. Viridiflora tulips--those with green sepals and edges--were developed in the 1700s. Other Dutch bulbs include irises, alliums, hyacinths, crocus, and the Crown Imperial Frittilaria which Clusius developed in Vienna.