Over 100 species of tulips grace our spring gardens with their brilliant pallet of colors including red, yellow, pink, purple and even black with all tints and shades in between. The flower’s name is from the Turkish work dulband, which means turban. The name was the result of a confusion of languages by people who misunderstood the name of the flower for the turbans into which tulips were commonly tucked.
The tulip originated in Persia, but its travels as a souvenir broadened its exposure to England, the US, Asia and Europe, especially Holland. Tulip designs have been found on pottery jars dating from 2200 to 1600 BC and on fabric from the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century.
Because the Persian landscape was filled with such an abundance of colorful flowers, tulips were considered common, and the Persians paid only casual attention to their beauty. However, what is not valued in one culture is often worshipped in another. Such is the history of the tulip.
Legend tells of a Turkish merchant who was traveling through Persia to trade for luxury items. As he passed through a valley, he noticed masses of beautiful tulips in bloom. He was so enchanted with the sight that he stopped his caravan and dug up as many bulbs as he could carry back to his home.
He planted the bulbs, and they thrived in his garden. Their blossoms became the envy of all his friends. Infatuation with the flower placed it in hot demand as a popular souvenir from traders and travelers to Persia. Tulips became so popular that the sultan proclaimed it the national flower of Turkey and celebrated the flower with an annual Feast of the Tulip.
Tulips came to England from Turkey during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. As an imported item, they were extravagantly expensive, out of reach for the common gardener and affordable to only the richest and most dedicated gardeners. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the price had lowered to an affordable luxury for most gardeners.
The Dutch began their monopoly and reputation for quantity and quality of tulips when Dutch aristocrats began importing the bulbs. They became so popular they commanded such high prices as acres of land, expensive homes, carriages and clothes in exchange for a single bulb.
From 1634 to 1637, Holland was seized with tulipomania. The financial passion for the bulb began in France where nobles offered extravagant prices for unusual varieties. The mania grew as it spread to Holland where the bulbs were bought and sold at exorbitant prices; bulbs were speculated on much like the futures market.
One Semper August bulb sold for 5500 florins or over $2500 in today’s currency. Legend states that at one time only two bulbs of this rare variety existed. Eventually the artificially high prices and wild speculation caused the market to collapse creating economic depression, hunger and poverty throughout the country.
The Turkish government learned from the experience of the Dutch and passed laws allowing the bulbs to be bought and sold only in the capital city on penalty of exile. During the Turkish Age of Tulips from 1730 to 1730, records indicate over 1500 varieties existed.
It is said that tulips protect anyone who grows them. Ancient beliefs also claim that fairies and elves use the tulip blossoms for cradles for their babies. The parents sit beneath the blossoms while they sing their babies to sleep and then place them in the cuplike blossoms where the winds gently rock them through the night. The fairies and elves then dance the night away knowing their children are protected and safe.
In the Victorian language of flowers, the tulip is a declaration of love. A red tulip presented to a young man’s sweetheart meant that her beauty was stunning. If her admirer gazed at her for only a moment, his face would become as red as fire and his heart shrunk to a coal like the black of the tulip’s center. A yellow tulip meant hopeless love, and variegated varieties were given to women with beautiful eyes.
In modern times, tulips are a popular Valentine or springtime gift for a friend or loved one. Now, they're affordable ~ and in our eco-conscious world, after the plant finishes blooming, the bulbs can be planted in the landscape to be enjoyed again the next spring.