Favorites in gardens and in art

“Deb's Tulips”, watercolor by Janet Ravas, of Scotia, New York. Ravas is a member of the Wassenberg Art Center in Van Wert.

     For hundreds of years the tulip has been a favorite subject for designers, artists and photographers. The Old Dutch masters painted huge, spectacular still lifes featuring many varieties of tulips; many of today’s artists enjoy painting them, and tulips even feature as desktop wallpaper for computers. This beautiful flower has a long and fascinating history.

     No one really knows where tulips originated. It can be found growing wild in North Africa, southern Italy, southern France, Turkey, China, Japan and Korea. Its most likely birthplace seems to be in central Asia, somewhere between China and the southernmost part of Russia. From there, the tiny tulip seeds probably rode the wind in enormous clouds of dust, traveling over the Himalayas and even as far as the Netherlands.

     The flower quickly became a favorite of the Turkish sultans. Even before the rest of the world knew of the plant’s existence, experts in Turkey were searching for variations of the tulip. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) tulip bulbs were being propagated to create a diversity of colors and shapes. The goal was elongated tulips with petals tapering to a point. The Turks first called tulips Café Lale, but they also called it “tulipan,” derived from “dalban,” meaning a turban.

     Tulips took a long time to appear in the gardens of Western Europe, mostly because Turkish gardeners, harem guards, and harem residents were severely punished if they stole a tulip from the sultan’s garden. The tulip was very successfully kept as a secret, private pleasure for the lord and ladies of the harem. No flower was allowed to leave the garden, let alone a bulb.

     In the 1500s the Flemish diplomat Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq wrote about the beautiful tulips he saw in the court of Suleiman I, sultan of Turkey. His descriptions aroused the interest of Clusius, the head of the Imperial Physic Garden in Vienna, established by Emperor Maximilian II. De Busbecq somehow obtained tulip bulbs and seeds and brought them to Clusius along with instructions on how to grow them.

     Especially in the Netherlands, the tulip quickly became a coveted luxury item and status symbol. Varieties were classified by groups; one-colored tulips of red, yellow, or white were known as Couleren, but the multicolored Rosen (red or pink on white background), Violetten (purple or lilac on white background), and Bizarden (red, brown or purple on yellow background) were most popular. These tulip bulbs would grow flowers with vivid colors, lines, and flames on the petals, the result of a tulip-specific mosaic virus.

     As the flowers grew in popularity, “tulipomania” set in. Professional growers paid higher and higher prices for bulbs with the virus. By 1634 speculators began to enter the market. In 1636, the Dutch created a type of formal futures markets where contracts to buy bulbs at the end of the season were bought and sold. Traders met in “colleges” at taverns and buyers were required to pay a fee for each trade.

     The growing popularity of tulips in the early 17th century caught the attention of the entire nation. Even the lowest members of Dutch society were involved in tulip trading. People sold or traded their other possessions to obtain tulip bulbs. By 1635, a sale of 40 bulbs for 100,000 florins was recorded. By way of comparison, a ton of butter cost around 100 florins, a skilled laborer might earn 150 florins a year, and “eight fat swine” cost 240 florins.

     Prices for tulip bulbs kept escalating until by February 1637 it was impossible to find buyers willing to pay increasingly high prices for bulbs. The demand for tulips collapsed, and prices plummeted. Some traders were left holding contracts to purchase tulips at prices now ten times greater than those on the open market, while others found themselves with a stock of bulbs now worth a fraction of the price they had paid.

By Kay Sluterbeck/AAPJ

Published by on April 2011. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, In-Out Design Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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