If you've managed to wrestle your tulip bulbs away from the rodents this year, you're in for a charming display. Of all the flowers blooming first in the garden, the tulip most grandly says "spring."
I patiently planted four dozen green and white beauties in front of my house last fall. Now Iím eagerly waiting to see if those crushed shells I buried with them kept the critters at bay. Four hundred years since their introduction to Holland, tulips are still driving gardeners wild.
The tulip, a member of the lily family, is native to Persia (The word "tulip" is said to be a corruption of the Persian word toliban, meaning turban.). Its natural habitat is mountainous, where it rests beneath thick layers of snow in winter. The Turks were cultivating the flowers as early as 1000 A.D. Carolus Clusius, a sixteenth century Dutch botanist and pharmacist who had received a collection of tulip bulbs and seeds from the Austrian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, introduced the flower to the Netherlands.
Clusius planted tulips at the botanical gardens at the University of Leiden in 1593. The vibrant colors, scarcity, and novelty of the plant caused an immediate sensation, and tulips became a status symbol for wealthy aristocrats.
If you thought the collapse of technology stocks was a nightmare, be glad you weren't around for Tulipmania in 1637. Demand for tulip bulbs led to a speculative frenzy that saw people paying $1,500 for a dozen bulbs and selling "futures" on crops that did not even exist. The sheer beauty of the plant was to blame for the frenzy, as the tulip could neither be consumed nor used as medicine.
Between 1634 and 1637, rare cultivars such as the mottled maroon and white "Semper Augustus" were being sold not per bulb but by weight, the same measurement used for gold. The craze permeated all classes of Dutch society as homes, estates, and industries were mortgaged to purchase bulbs that could then be sold for higher prices.
Eventually, of course, values could climb no higher, and the market collapsed, leaving tulip traders and speculators bankrupt overnight. The crash did little to mar the tulip's reputation, however, and it continues to be a vital part of the Dutch flower industry and the national flower of Holland.
Fortunately for New Englanders, you don't have to fly to Europe to see an ocean of Tulipa. The tulip capital of North America is just a short drive across the Canadian border.
In 1945, Princess Juliana of Holland presented the government of Canada with 100,000 tulip bulbs in recognition of that country's role in sheltering the Dutch Royal Family and liberating the Netherlands during World War II. The bulbs were planted in and around Ottawa, Ontario, the nation's capital, which led to the establishment of the Canadian Tulip Festival.
For ten days in May, visitors to Ottawa enjoy a spectacular display of millions of tulips throughout the National Capital region. For more information visit <www.tulipfestival.ca>