University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring, Fall News Article

Origins of the Dutch Bulb Industry

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 

To understand the origins of the Dutch bulb industry, you need to know about Carolus Clusius. And you need to know about his friend, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq.

Busbecq, a keen gardener, was the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I to the Ottoman Empire (now roughly Turkey) in the mid-1500s. Traveling to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1554, he noticed many lovely flowers in the Turkish gardens. Many were called "lalé" by the Turks, which his interpreter likely mistook as being like a "dulban" or turban. This was further corrupted as "tulipam" leading to the name "Tulip" of this genus.

Meanwhile, Busbecq had used his influence to have Carolus Clusius appointed as head of the Imperial Gardens in Vienna in 1573. Born in France in 1526, Clusius had traveled widely and acquired medical and botanical training by the time of his appointment. He had produced several botanical works. It is to Vienna that Busbecq sent the first tulips and other bulbs to Europe. The Fritillaria or Crown Imperial takes its name from these imperial gardens of Vienna.

The first tulips were long-stemmed, red-flowered cultivars. They were illustrated by the German naturalist Konrad Gesner in 1559, and have since borne his name in the species gesneriana.

Although Busbecq introduced these bulbs to Europe, it is Clusius that popularized them. After 14 years at the Viennese Imperial Gardens, he moved to Leiden in the Netherlands. Here he founded the Hortus Academicus--the first botanic garden to focus on ornamental plants rather than medicinal ones.

In his gardens Clusius developed a private tulip collection, from which he sold specimens for outrageous prices. Unwilling to pay these, yet desirous of the plants, local gardeners broke into his gardens stealing many of these specimen tulips. It is from these that the now famous Dutch bulb industry developed.

About 93 percent of all bulbs in the world come from the Netherlands.  There are over 52,000 acres of bulbs produced there by about 2,700 growers, with about 20,000 employees.  The average bulb farm size is about 20 acres.  Over nine billion bulbs are produced annually, one third of which are tulips. These three billion tulips, if planted four inches apart, would circle the globe at the equator seven times!

Other important bulbs are lilies, gladiolus and narcissus. Many of the 3,500 different tulip varieties and other bulbs can be seen at the world famous 70 acres at Keukenhof every spring.

One other interesting bit of history, which occurred  in the early 1600s, was "tulip mania." This sprang from the tendency of tulips to be infected with a virus, resulting in odd yet often attractive colored streaking in the flowers. These variants, called "broken" tulips, became prized, sought widely, and worth many guilders (money). This led to widespread trading, speculation, and then as most such fads sudden market collapse in 1637. These lovely tulips have remained to this day, however, depicted in the art of the Dutch masters. For this reason, similar ones today with such streaking of various colors yet without any virus are called “Rembrandt” tulips.

These are only a few of the fascinating facts on the history, origins, lore, and naming of one plant. If you want to learn more about other plants and gardens, an excellent reference is The Gardener's Atlas by Dr. John Grimshaw. More information on  Dutch bulbs can be found at the Netherlands Flower Information Center website (www.bulb.com).


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