From the Kremlin to Windsor Castle, the sensational tulip takes center stage in spring gardens around the world. In Holland, they are a 2 billion dollar business and bulb fields resemble gigantic Piet Mondrian color-block paintings.
Tulips have traveled far from their natural home in Central Asia. In the process they aroused passions and drove men and financial markets crazy.
Tulip Mania and Market Frenzy
When Tulips arrived in Holland from Turkey, in the 16th century, they created a huge sensation.Their intense color and elegant shape seemed exotic and created instant demand.
Suleyman the Magnificent had tulips embroidered on his robes and, it is said, his underwear.
Speculation grew with demand then prices soared and a colossal financial bubble formed. As the frenzy intensified some bulbs changed hands ten times a day. Merchants traded fortunes for one Semper Augustus bulb, a white bloom with red streaks. In 1663 a farmhouse in Hoorn was sold for three bulbs. The tulip was a phenomenon and the market craziness dubbed Tulip Mania.**
Tulips, Sultans and the Ottoman Empire
Before tulips reached Holland they bewitched and beguiled the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. In Constantinople the Palaces of Topkapi and Ciragan were surrounded with gardens filled with thousands of bulbs.
Tulips were so important to the Ottomans that the reign of Sultan Ahmed III is designated the Tulip Era. Vast fields outside the city provided blooms for lavish diplomatic parties where pyramids of tulips dominated the decor. Guests were instructed to wear clothing the color of tulips.
The tulip motif became an integral element of Ottoman culture. Most famously used for decorating Iznik ceramics and used on mosques and buildings. It also adorned clothing. Suleyman the Magnificent had tulips embroidered on his robes and, it is said, his underwear.
Where did the Sensational Tulip Come From?
Long before tulips drove men and financial markets to distraction, or had attained the status as motif of an empire, tulips were wild flowers. Home was the Tien Shan mountains of Central Asia where they still thrive.
Their journey west was probably along the Ancient Silk Road. When traveling in Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley I saw women selling bunches of wild red tulips gathered from meadows.
Travel Along the Ancient Silk Road
Probably merchants traveling with caravans of camels, enchanted by the spring blooms, tucked bulbs into their saddle packs. Eventually tulips reached Samarkand, Bukara and then Persia. In each place they created a sensation, were painted and often the subject of poetry. Eventually they reached Turkey.
The Sensational tulip has come a long way.
is a classic example of speculation in Investing 101. Recently published, Tulipomania: The Story of the Worlds Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions it Aroused, By journalist, Mike Dash. It is a page turner which details the phenomenon.
Want to Learn More about Tulips?
“The Flower that Drove Men Mad” is a popular illustrated talk I give in Spring. I cover the tulip as inspiration for the artist and for decor, showing over 50 images. Also, I include colorful Behind Palace Walls gossip from the Ottoman Empire.
Where to See Tulips: