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About a Bulb

They rose out of the grave in my front yard. Green fingers pushed through soil and compost, thickening with the warmth and light of spring days. From each opened palm of leaves, a stalk lifted into the air one lone thickening bud that slowly reddened, opening into a bloom as a warm sun swelled its petals. The tulips have risen.

Last Halloween I planted six tulip bulbs in the middle of a front-yard grave I made of leaves and compost, with a cluster of worms added. I wrote “War” on its cardboard headstone. The tulip bulbs I’d added to the plot are now in full bloom and are the sole reminder of the grave.

Tulips are not native to Holland. While Holland now dominates world tulip sales (controlling 80 percent of the market and producing some three billion bulbs each year), the tulip is of more distant origin. The best evidence points to central Asia as the motherland of tulips, specifically the foothills and valleys of the Pamir and Tien-shan mountains in the area where China, Tibet, Tadzhikistan and Afghanistan meet. The plant’s ability to weather extreme cold, survive poor soil, and bloom in cool temperatures helped it adapt to this harsh environment. In this land of cold winters and dry summers, wild tulips raise red blossoms to the spring. For the early peoples in these areas, they must have been a welcome sign of seasonal change. For others to come, the flower would symbolize life itself.

Turkish peoples of the Middle East had early contact with the homeland of tulips and brought plants back from their travels. Records indicate that Turks were cultivating tulips by about 1000 A.D. This simple little plant soon went on to be an important addition to the gardens of sultans and a powerful religious symbol in Islam. For the Ottoman Turks of the 16th century, the tulip was seen as the flower of God. It was a holy plant. Some believed that growing these plants could help their souls make it to paradise. Images of tulips were embroidered into clothes, woven into carpets and added to the symbols adorning saddles and armor.

It appears that the earliest European exposure to the tulip occurred during visits to Istanbul at the time of the Ottoman ruler Suleyman. Suleyman had made substantial military incursions into Eastern Europe by the middle of the 16th century, and the ruling families of Europe began to take notice and visit Istanbul. European gardens at this time were devoted to edible and medicinal plants, the flower gardens popular in Istanbul were alien to European horticultural leanings. The gardens of these Turks championed the colors, shapes and scents of flowers that were neither eaten nor mixed into medicinal concoctions. How strange.

The 16th-century gardens of Istanbul nurtured the development of a number of tulip varieties. Certain characteristics of the flowers were fostered by selective plantings. The wild flower of the mountains was quickly changing in accord with the cultural preferences of the Turks and the skills of their gardeners. Turkish reverence for tulips eventually would lead to spring tulip festivals to celebrate the plant.

The word “tulip” is derived from the Turkish word for turban. It was further modified as it was incorporated into French and Dutch before arriving at our English word. The flowers were named such because of their visual similarity to the shape and color of Middle Eastern head coverings.

It was not until 1593 that tulips began to get a foothold among the Dutch. It was the year when Carolus Clusius became chief botanist for the botanical garden of the University of Leiden. While previously employed at the Imperial Medicinal Herb Garden in Prague, Clusius had received a number of tulip bulbs from Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, who had lived in Istanbul as the ambassador of the Holy Roman emperor. Some credit de Busbecq with naming tulips for turbans. Clusius brought a collection of tulip bulbs with him to Leiden and set about planting his own garden. Much of the vast tulip market that developed in 17th-century Holland can be traced back to bulbs looted from Clusius’s garden by clandestine tulip rustlers.

Tulips grow from bulbs and are related to other bulbous plants like the crocus, hyacinth and iris. The bulb is essentially a tulip with its stem drawn in above specialized leaves that store carbohydrates and sugars to meet the plant’s nutritional needs. Tulips can be propagated by seeds or offset bulbs, which are clones that form from the parent bulb. Seeds take five years or more to produce flowers, and one doesn’t know what one has until it blooms. Most tulip farmers make use of the quicker growing clones that will generally produce flowers identical to the parent plant.

The slow process through which tulip bulbs were produced ensured a scarcity. As tulips became increasingly popular in Holland, this scarcity caused prices to rise, fueled by the willingness of wealthy tulip lovers to expend large amounts of capital for the plants. Trade in tulips got so hot that it led to what is called Tulipomania. From 1634 to 1637, tulip prices soared to where single bulbs were selling for the equivalent of thousands of dollars. People were buying and selling tulips using promissory notes for bulbs still in the ground. Speculation ran rampant until prices came to a crashing halt in February 1637, with economic effects reverberating through the larger economy. The Dutch went on from this fiscal disaster to become the world’s top bulb producer, even selling bulbs back to the Turks for their gardens. The Dutch also exported their love of tulips to their colony of New Netherland (New York).

So, it seems the tulips in my front yard have journeyed from the other side of the planet and passed through a colorful multicultural history of cultivation before spreading their red blooms and flashing their springtime sign for me. I am most grateful that wild tulips still bloom in distant mountain valleys.

—Tom Nattell


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