The Tulip

by Anna Pavord

Published by Bloomsbury

448 pages, 1999

Buy it online






A Tulip by Any Other Name...

Reviewed by Jay Currie


Just liking a particular flower does not make for much of a book. In The Tulip, Anna Pavord has gone beyond the waxy velvet vividness and the tightly cupped petals. The story of the tulip is also the story of how history, commerce, cultivation, genetics and, for flavor, mania and a virus come together in a fascinating dance.

As with most plants we begin with the species, the flower in the wild. Here the wild was the between lands of what used to be called the Near East. The Transcaucasus, Armenia, Tashkent and Anatolia were each home to one or more species of wild tulip. The court of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, with its harem and its eunuchs, was mad about tulips from the mid 1400s. Huge plantings occurred in the pleasure gardens of Constantinople. Orders ran throughout the Ottoman bureaucracy for 50,000 or 300,000 tulip bulbs at a time. The tulip formed a design motif for ceramics, fabric and other decorations.

But the Ottoman tulips were very different from the tulips Westerners were to prize a couple of centuries later. "In Western Europe, tulip lovers favored a rounded, cup-shaped flower, well marked with contrasting colors. The Turkish florists... favored tall, thin tulips, narrowly contoured and made up of dagger-shaped petals... and of one color."

The tulip made its official transition to the West in the mid 1500s. A Flemish ambassador to Suleiman the Magnificent introduced it to Northern Europe and it was quickly taken up by the aristocratic gardeners of the age. Historically, the Northern European gardeners of the 16th century were a cross between people who wanted to put on a show and plant collectors with a greater or lesser degree of scientific purpose. The exotic plants from the East were curiosities as well as decoration.

Tulips pose a bit of a challenge for the cultivator. Grown from seed, a tulip takes seven years to produce a flowering bulb. Moreover, seed does not tend to breed true. Bulbs, on the other hand, would provide offsets and these would bear the same characteristics as the parent bulb. Except, and this was the crucial exception, when a tulip "broke." The most highly prized tulips in Europe were breaks in which instead of a vivid, solid red or mauve, a tulip had a pattern against a background. These were rarities and could not be bred. Of a hundred very plain, identically tended bulbs, one or two might exhibit a break. Though the Dutch tulip growers who began to dominate the trade in the 1600s had no way of knowing this, the breaks were caused by a virus.

The tulip mania which gripped Holland in the early 1600s was driven by broken tulips: the Semper Augustus was trading at 1000 florins a bulb in 1623. By 1633 that price had climbed to 5500 florins and at the very height of the mania it may have reached 13,000. For scale Pavord points out that the average annual income during the mania was 150 florins. Partially this was a speculative bubble, but it was also fueled by the knowledge that a very profitable break in a plain bulb could command the price of a house.

The history and economics of the Dutch tulip mania are handled beautifully by Pavord. While hundreds of speculators were bankrupted when the market collapsed, the mania created the entire Dutch tulip industry. An industry which exports three thousand million bulbs to the United States alone every year.

In the end, The Tulip is less concerned with the marketplace than the huge and delightful variety of species and cultivar tulips. From the frothy lingerie finish of the parrot tulips to the elegant yellows and reds of the Darwin Hybrids, the sweep of tulips in from the Steppes and through the polders to our gardens is lovingly and interestingly chronicled in The Tulip.  | March 2000


Jay Currie is the editor of two chairs magazine.