Tulips have a history spanning thousands of years, according to Tesselaar, an Australian nursery. From native plants in Asia to exotic hybrids in Europe, the history of the tulip involves not only beautiful plants but greed and economics gone awry. During 1636-1637, "Tulipomania" took over the Netherlands and prices for bulbs went to outrageous heights until the market crashed and the Dutch government stepped in. Later, the Dutch brought tulips to other parts of the world. Today, tulips are planted simply for their beauty.
There are only about 100 species of tulips growing in nature, according to information from the Mount Holyoke College Botanic Garden. Native to western and central Asia, the first tulips were small and red, probably brought to Turkey by nomads. Eventually, the Turks so revered tulips that they named the plants "the flowers of God." Barbara Schulman of the University of Minnesota writes that the Turks may have been growing tulips since 1000 A.D. Turkey had its own tulip fever in the 1700s.
Tulips Arrive in Europe
An ambassador from Austria first saw tulips in 1556 during a visit to Turkey, according to Barbara Schulman. He was so impressed that he took seeds and bulbs back with him to Emperor Ferdinand I. Most were planted in Ferdinand's garden. The remainder were given to a botanist named Carolus Clusius, who planted them in gardens in Prague and began to send them to other botanists.
Father of the Tulip
Clusius was named "Father of the Tulip" for his work spreading tulips throughout Europe. In 1593, he left Prague for the Netherlands to become chief botanist at a Leiden university, taking his tulips with him. Barabara Schulman writes that he and others began to hybridize tulips and the Dutch became more intrigued with the new, exotic varieties. One such tulip was the Semper Augustus, described by Schulman as "a white tulip with red flames."
Tesselaar reports that a single specialty bulb during "Tulipomania" could be worth as much as "a house in the best parts of Amsterdam." While more ordinary bulbs were being sold to the lower classes for more affordable prices, the Semper Augustus bulbs and the like were pushing the market over the edge. Prices for bulbs essentially not even ready for sale became so exorbitant that there were no longer buyers for them and the market crashed.
The Tulip After Tulipomania
For the remainder of the 17th century and through the 18th, the tulip was still coveted by the rest of Europe. Later it was learned that the striped or "broken" tulips were actually diseased, infected with the mosaic virus. The 1800s brought upheaval and the tulip took a backseat to other considerations, but the Dutch continued growing tulips. As of 2010, according to Tesselaar, the Dutch export 1.2 billion bulbs a year.