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Tulipomania: Madness in 17th Century Holland
The most astonishing drama in the whole history of horticulture!

Tulips came into Western European gardens in the latter half of the 16th century. Since that time they have not only furnished beauty, but exciting moments in commerce and politics too. Augerius Busbequius, a Viennese ambassador to Turkey, was the first European on record to introduce them to Europe. He admired them in Turkish gardens where they had been cultivated for many years, originally having been brought there from Persia. The name tulip probably comes from the word dulban or tuliban, meaning turban, since the shape of the blooms suggest an inverted turban. Flowers grown from seed sent back by Busbequius caused such a stir in Vienna that seed and bulbs were soon sent to all parts of Europe.

The botanist Carolus Clusius of Leyden was one of the earliest growers. He developed a large collection that, around 1591, he proudly displayed to his fellow townsmen. He also offered bulbs for sale at very high prices. Whether he sold any or not is unknown. According to some accounts nobody was prepared to pay the excessive price Clusius asked and the bulbs were stolen from his garden instead.

In any case countrymen of Clusius somehow acquired stock and commenced the tulip growing which is such an important industry in Holland today. A book published in 1614 featured many tulips, including feathered and flamed "broken" varieties, and in 1629 John Parkinson in his Paradisus enumerates 140 varieties, showing that tulips had taken an important place in English gardens.

Rich men in Flanders, Germany and France were apparently as anxious as the Dutch to buy bulbs and very high prices are recorded. Two bulbs of 'Semper Augustus' a beautiful broken tulip, flamed and feathered red on white ground - were reported to have been sold in 1632 for 3000 florins. Ladies of the French court created a fashion of wearing tulips on their dresses, valuing apparently the unusual kinds, so that there was competition among their suitors to buy flowers of the rarest and newest varieties. All this laid the foundation for the famous Tulipomania of Holland between 1634 and 1637, one of the most extraordinary speculative manias in history and to be compared only with the South Sea Bubble of 1717, the Florida Land Boom, and the Stock Market speculations in the late 1920s.

Beginning in 1634 the increased sales of tulips was no doubt legitimate business, but very soon it turned into pure speculation. Speculators were weavers, tailors, artisans and all kinds of merchants. Among them were also the bulb growers, who were only too ready to take advantage of the situation. The inns became places where bulbs were bought and sold. Crowds gathered every day and we are told that they also liberally worshipped at the shrine of Bacchus. The actual tulip bulbs, however, were absent; they only figured on paper. Without being delivered, bulbs changed from hand to hand several times a day, just as shares do on the Stock Exchange today. The mania increased from week to week. Bulbs were no longer priced singly, but by very fine weight, the measure being an ace, weighing 1/20 part of a decigram. We can get some idea of what all this meant when we realize that a good tulip bulb today weighs about 7,000 aces.

On February 5, 1637, a sale of tulip bulbs was held in the hall of a large public meeting place in the town of Alkmaar, where 48,000 aces of tulip bulbs were put up for sale. This weight corresponds to that of about 6 or 7 good tulip bulbs you would buy today. These 48,000 aces realized a price of 68,533 florins, which meant that the average price for each bulb was about 9,790 florins.

At another sale, the frenzy for bidding got even more out of hand. For example, an 'Admiral Liefkens' of 400 aces fetched 4,400 florins. A 'Vice Roy' of 410 aces fetched 3,000 florins; a 'Gouda' of 1,000 aces 3,600; an 'Admiral van Enckhuyzen' of 215 aces 5,400 florins; and so on. Another single bulb was traded for 12 acres of good farmland. Then, as the gamble grew wilder, houses and estates were mortgaged. The craze culminated in such fantastic deals as of one 'Semper Augustus' weighing 193 aces - a very small bulb, not of flowering size - for the sum of 4,600 florins plus a coach, with two dapple-gray horses, the money to be paid immediately, although the bulb was to be delivered months later.

This mania continued for three years and then broke with a terrific crash. The number of speculators had grown steadily. Prices became more and more fantastic and it was all too apparent that many were heading for disaster. Suddenly the values dropped faster than they ever have on a modern stock market. Like all speculative bubbles this one collapsed, bringing not riches, but ruin to thousands of hapless investors.

Some reports state that in 1637 the States of Holland officially put an end to the speculation but others claim that it only stepped in after the event. Apparently there was endless litigation and the Government had to appoint a commission to bring about agreements and to help settle the confusion.

Broken Tulips

It may surprise modern gardeners to learn that the tulips for which people paid fortunes were not the solid-colored tulips that we grow today. The tulips most sought after in the 17th century were the so-called "broken" kinds known as Bizarres and Bybloemens. These were feathered and flamed rose, scarlet, purple and brown on a white or yellow ground.

New varieties grown from seed always start out as solid-colored varieties. These were at that time not considered desirable but merely used as breeders from which "broken" tulips could be procured. After growing these solid-colored kinds for a number of years they would suddenly "break" into varieties with feathers and flames. Henceforth this bulb and each of its progeny would produce broken flowers in freakish, ever-changing patterns. What the grower did not and could not know is that this breaking was caused by a virus disease that weakens the bulb and eventually kills it. The more infected the plant was the more beautiful the flowers became and the higher the price.

Today, whenever a tulip shows signs of breaking, the grower immediately removes the plant and the underground bulb from his field to prevent infection of healthy neighboring plants. So careful do growers inspect their crops, that finding a broken tulip in your garden today is a very rare occurrence indeed.

Modern Dutch hybridizers have managed to breed tulips which resemble these much sought after broken tulips of the 17th century. The difference is, of course, that these tulips are not virus infected and do not show constant changes in their color patterns.

As we have seen, one of the most prized tulips of the 17th century was one named 'Semper Augustus': a flamed and feathered red on a white ground. So admired was this tulip that its beauty has been preserved on several 17th century paintings. Some of today's hybrids resemble this old favorite. One of these is Banja Luka, a Colorblends favorite that can give your garden a little 17th-century flavor.

As for the price? 4,600 florins plus a coach, with two dapple-gray horses, the money to be paid immediately, although the bulbs won't be delivered until the fall....