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Plant Histories - The Tulip

Hopefully by now we've all managed to get our bulbs in the ground. If not, you'd be needing a sharp spade if you were to tackle the soil around Herefordshire. We've been hit by a rather sharp and consistent freeze that doesn't appear to be ending. Just a few days ago I believe it was Monty Don who measured -13 Celsius in his North Herefordshire plot... brrrrr!

Since being a young boy, History is a subject that has always fascinated me. My bookcase at home (shelves dangerously bending from far too much weight) is full of books covering events from the past. Subjects as far back as King Cnut to the more recent Vietnam War are present, though one topic that dominates is garden history.

Something I would like to do moving forwards is a regular article going into the background of seasonal plants. Nothing seemed like a better place to start than the tulip. It's one of the most spectacular Spring plants... but behind its blooms, the tulip has an exciting story.


Most of the tulips we see today are hybrids - each the result of a very lengthy process as growers attempt to cross two plants. Creating a new hybrid takes many years and a great deal of trial-and-error... It doesn't help that it takes at least 7 years for a new tulip to even show its first colours!

Tulips in their natural form (species tulips) are slightly different to the tall, elegant flowers we see today. Species Tulips tend to be smaller, capable of spreading and have multiple flowers from one stem.

We often associate the Dutch with Tulips - but in fact species tulips are native from Southern Europe into Central Asia. Records show that they were being cultivated across Iran and Turkey as early as the 10th Century!

Origins & Name

The Ottoman Empire began right at the end of the 13th Century and by the 16th Century it had become a formidable Empire controlling the major trade routes from Asia into Europe. The tulip was already a much-loved plant throughout the region, so it's no surprise the tulip became a significant feature of its culture.

Prior to this period, the recorded name attributed to the tulip was laleh, meaning 'Flower of God'. Its use became a celebration of Allah and so it was seen as a holy plant. There are other traces referring to the tulip as lale. This is likely down to the connection that the Persian word for red was lal.

Pierre Belon, a French Naturalist, visited the Empire in the 16th Century and noted that there wasn't a single garden without a tulip. Another frequent sight Belon recorded was the practice of men tucking a single tulip flower into their turban.

A (Not-So) New Discovery

In the 1540's a Royal Ambassador from the Holy Roman Emperor, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, visited the Ottoman Empire for a number of years. Busbecq was an intellectual and although he initially visited the Ottoman's to help broker a boarder treaty, he spent his time immersed in Ottoman culture discovering numerous plants, texts and other historic memorabilia. Included in his finds - the tulip.

It was over Busbecq's visit when the name laleh changed. The tale goes that one day he was out on a walk with an advisor and pointed to a gentleman's head asking what was on it - referring to the tulip. His acquaintance mistook his indication and responded with tulband (the word for turban) and somehow, with words being twisted, Busbecq misinterpreted this as tulipam. Though there are a few stories, this I like the most!

Tulipa, the Latin botanical name for the plant, came from Tulipam and from that so does our modern word - the 'tulip'!

Busbecq was greatly taken by the plant and years later he began to arrange merchants to introduce the plant into Western Europe. Although his claim to have arranged the first batch for export is disputed, his wide web of relationships around Europe meant he would go down as the leading figure behind its spread from the Empire.

Introduction into Europe

It is not known exactly when the very first tulips made their way into Europe, but around the year 1555 there are accounts confirming merchants were delivering bulbs into the Continent. Tulips went on to quickly spread throughout Western Europe. There is a record of a Swiss botanist describing a red tulip growing in a Bavarian garden in 1559.

One of Busbecq's connections to receive his personal plant packages was Carolus Clusius, a highly regarded horticulturalist based in Austria. So highly viewed, in 1573 Clusius was invited by the Holy Roman Emperor to plant a botanical garden in Vienna.

20 years later he was asked to oversee a Botanic Garden for the University at Leiden, Netherlands. Busbecq's finds would feature heavily in this garden.

Throughout the years it didn't take long for word to spread about Clusius' collection of plants from the Ottoman Empire. What once started as an exciting find, shared between collectors and friends, plants began to develop monetary value. As the tulip became a sought-after plant for private gardens, its value to the wealthy began to increase. Subsequentially, Clusius private collection was subject to numerous 'bulb raids'!

Dutch 'Tulipmania'

It has to be remembered that in the 17th Century, due to the huge successes of the Dutch Trading Companies, the Netherlands (then, known as the Dutch Republic) was a highly prosperous Empire. In fact, at the time, the wealthiest in Europe!

This growth of wealth led to a thriving class of wealthy Merchant families. At the time, there was no better 'object' to display one's wealth than the highly fashionable tulip. A later comparison could be said about Britain's obsession with the pineapple.

By the 1620's tulips with streaks were beginning to fetch abnormally high prices. The most sought-after variety was the 'Semper Augustus' - a tulip with crimson flares against a white base.

But what's interesting is that the Semper Augustus was actually a broken tulip. This refers to a tulip with the Tulip Breaking Virus. Whilst this virus caused striking colours, it served to weaken the bulb meaning that, after a few years, off-spring from the original would eventually become too weak to flower. How sad!

After a few decades of Dutch cultivators perfecting the process of growing and hybridising their own tulips, it was the mid 1630's when the craze hit its peak. At this point a single bulb producing a desirable colour would in some cases sell for 10 times than value of the average man's wage - the country was well and truly gripped by the plant!

Rare bulbs were now worth more than the most prominent properties beside the Dutch canals and everyone across society was riding the wave, trading bulbs like currency. But the problem laid in the fact that everyone lived on the premise that a bulb purchased today would be worth more tomorrow. Prices soared and in around 1637 the bubble popped when buyers began to default on purchases as they simply couldn't afford to pay the asking rates.

Although the market went bust, the planting of tulips in formal beds stayed in fashion for many years only later being affected by Britain's product, the 18th Century Landscape Garden.

This new concept of grand gardens being open spaces, accepting the wider landscape, began to replace the taste of highly formal, brightly planted gardens seen at Het Loo and Versailles.

The Tulip Era, lale devri

From where we left our friend Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq in the 1540's, the tulip remained a key cultural icon throughout the Ottoman Empire. Its floral motif was used on silks, carpets, tiles, armour... almost anything makers could feature it on!

Although the Tulip had reached its peak in the West, back in the Ottoman Empire it was about to follow suit under Sultan Ahmed III.

Ahmed III ruled from 1703 - 1730. Over this 27 year period, he gained a reputation somewhat similar to the French Sun King (Louis XIV) for his love of the arts. So much so, in 1718 Ahmed III handed the running of his government over to his daughter Fatima and his Grand Vizer.

With politics taken care of now Ahmed III could get to work! He devoted his reign to building spectacular palaces and communal buildings, including elaborate water fountains and restoring older buildings. His new style of architecture was much more ornate than the traditional architecture seen up until this point - possibly taking influence from the ornate Baroque style seen across Western Europe.

To decorate the grounds of his grand buildings, you only need to guess what Ahmed III ordered to be planted... Tulips... and a lot of them! Very extravagant parties were held around his gardens as guests celebrated the tulips in flower (many were new Hybrids imported from Dutch growers... now isn't that a round circle!). A French Ambassador who visited in 1726 estimated there was at least half a million bulbs in one garden!

This fantastic quote from Michael Pollan really helps to picture Ahmed III's obsession:-

'Tulips whose petals had flexed too wide were held shut with fine threads hand-tied. Most of the bulbs had been grown in place, but these were supplemented by thousands of cut stems held in glass bottles; the scale of the display was further compounded by mirrors placed strategically around the garden. Each variety was marked with a label made from silver filigree. In place of every fourth flower a candle, its wick trimmed to tulip height, was set into the ground. Songbirds in gilded cages supplied the music, and hundreds of giant tortoises carrying candles on their backs lumbered through the gardens, further illuminating the display. All the guests were required to dress in colors that flattered those of the tulips. At the appointed moment a cannon sounded, the doors to the harem were flung open, and the sultan’s mistresses stepped into the garden led by eunuchs bearing torches. The whole scene was repeated every night for as long as the tulips were in bloom, for as long as Sultan Ahmed managed to cling to his throne'

Similar to the Dutch Tulipmania, the citizens of Istanbul were also experiencing a matched craze. Hundreds of florists were now popping up throughout the city to supply the wealthy with new hybrids. However, everything came to an end in 1730 as Ahmed III was forced to abdicate due to a riot against his luxury lifestyle. Amongst the great revolt, his personal grand palace, Sa'dabad Pavilion, was destroyed. Not a great ending - but he got off lighter than his Grand Vizer who was murdered over the coming days.

19th Century Britain

Although the tulip fell off in the 18th Century, the 1800's saw a revival in the planting of formal bedding and, as a consequence, the tulip had a resurgence. One notable garden that has now been accurately replanted to replicate how it would have looked is Audley End in Essex. After being landscaped by Lancelot Brown in the 1760's, in the 1830's a formal flower garden with parterres was installed.

Gardening as a whole for the Victorians was a truly exciting time. Prior to this date, many of the plants sourced by plant hunters were fleetingly available (many sold before even being unloaded at the docks) and were only accessible to those with the funds to pay for them.

Though, as time went on, commercial nurseries were opening up to meet growing demand and plants were becoming more widely accessible to the general public. Veitch, arguably the most famous nursery business of the period, went on to become the largest group of family-run plant nurseries in Europe! The humble gardener now had greater access to plants than ever before.

The Victorian era saw tulip societies openin