Wetenschap - 1 januari 1970

The tulip - darling of the Turks

The tulip - darling of the Turks

The tulip - darling of the Turks

Spring and tulips are inextricably linked in Holland. You might be forgiven for thinking the Dutch are obsessed with tulips. In the seventeenth century they even coined a term for it: tulpomania. Some tulip bulbs exchanged hands for an entire year's salary. For many foreigners Holland and tulips are still synonymous. However, long before the Dutch had even heard of the tulip it was the Turkish rulers who had a monopoly over this strange and beautiful flower. Each spring they enjoyed a magnificent floral display behind the closed walls of the harem; and woe betide anyone who tried to make off with a bulb. The punishment was severe

Tulips do not originally come from Turkey. The flower spread from China and the southern part of Central Asia. Nowadays it is found in the wild from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. It went unnoticed until Mohammed II, conqueror and then ruler of the Ottoman Empire discovered the beauty of the flower in the middle of the fifteenth century. He ordered samples to be collected from throughout his empire so he could grow them in his own gardens, solely for his own enjoyment. His successors also kept the tulip for their personal pleasure. It was not until a century later in 1554, that the Flemish ambassador to the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I discovered the tulip in the gardens of the former Turkish ruler. By now they flourished in large numbers and many varieties. The ambassador, De Busbecq, was the one who coined the name tulip, through a misunderstanding. The Turks used the Persian word lale, but often compared the flower to the turbans they wore. De Busbecq used the word tulipam when he wrote of the flower to Charles de l'Ecluse the prefect of the imperial botanic garden of Emperor Maximilian II. Clusius (as he was known) was obviously so impressed by the description that he brought them back to the Netherlands in 1592. Although there may have already been tulips by that time in western Europe, Clusius watched over his bulbs in the botanic garden in Leiden with the same fervour as the Turkish rulers had done previously. Other botanists and nobility were welcome to come and enjoy the flowers within the walls of the garden, but removing one was out of the question

This situation could not last forever. One night, a thief dug up a tulip and escaped over the wall with it. The event is still talked about in Leiden. Clusius became disillusioned, but he is regarded as the originator of the idea of breeding tulips for the pleasure they give. It was his protective attitude which also led to the idea of making money out of tulip bulbs for which the Netherlands has become so famous. The tulip mania reached its height around 1630, but seven years later the market collapsed, ruining many traders. Nevertheless the breeding and storage expertise was established, enabling Holland to maintain its unique position. Demand remained high among the royalty of Europe and gradually the rest of the population of Europe became acquainted with the tulip. As demand from the masses grew at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Dutch hit upon the idea of cultivating tulips in large fields to sell them as cut flowers, and by the beginning of the twentieth century had become the only country to export bulbs worldwide. The United States was the biggest market. In the first decade of this century one million dollars' worth of bulbs were imported from the Netherlands. This trade increased until the Second World War thanks to the commercial orientation of the Dutch. Already by the end of the nineteenth century they were busy translating bulb catalogues into English and French, providing free bulbs to public parks and organizing excursions to the tulip fields. All this has contributed to the image of this small nation known the world over for its bulbs and flowers. L.N

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