Friday 9 May 2008


In my last post, I asked if anyone was interested in learning a bit about tulips - I got no response. I assume this means that you, my loyal readers, are not dying to know about tulips. Do you think that is going to stop me from telling you anyway? Hell no, this is my blog and I am going to write about whatever I want to - so there!

Warning - educational information follows.

Would you believe me if I told you that tulips nearly ruined the economy of a certain country famed for its tulips? Would you believe that a grown man would chose to spend vast sums of money on a single flower? A flower that he might buy before he even knew what it would look like, which would then flower for a few, brief days and then wither and die, not even leaving offspring that might look the same? Absolute madness, if you ask me, but it happened all the same.

We are talking about Holland in the 1630s and we are talking tulipomania - an apparently well studied economical event that nearly ruined Holland. People went mad over tulips. I kid you not - men really did spend vast sums of money to buy a tulip. Now, everyone can understand why someone might want to spend large sums of money on a work of art - let's say a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh, for example. This would be considered an investment - you may not even like the painting, you may lock it up in your cellar for years, but it will still be there in years to come and it will still probably be worth a lot of money. But this just doesn't apply to our tulip. Let's take the most famous of the tulips around at the height of tulipomania - the Semper Augustus (see picture). I would hope anyone can see that this is a gorgeous flower, a feast for the eyes, the rich colours, the delicate and intricately feathered petals are a marvel indeed. But do you really think that anyone could be daft enough to spend over 6,000 florins on one bulb back in 1635? Just to give you some idea how much this was - an average income back then was around 150 florins. Let's say an average income now is $50,000 - that would mean that some numbnut just paid approximately $2,000,000 for a tulip! Such ridiculous sums of money for a flower that will wither and die. Why would anyone do that? I really don't know - perhaps you have to ask someone who has bucket loads of cash lying around, may be they would think that it is worth it. Now, I can tell you that many rich Dutch men bought the tulips for status reasons - can you imagine trying to keep up with the Joneses if they ever got a Semper Augustus in their front garden? I also know that many a man made his fortune by speculating and trading in tulips. However, in 1637, some bright spark suddenly turned around and said "Eh up? Why would anyone spend this much money on a poncey flower?" Everyone had second thoughts, the market collapsed and many people were left with nothing but a few worthless tulip bulbs.

One of the big questions for me was why certain tulips were so rare and hence so valuable. Surely if you have one tulip you could let it grow and multiply and then have lots of tulips, all of which you could then sell. Of course, if this were the case, the tulip would no longer be rare and therefore it would lose its value. Still, this doesn't answer the question of why some tulips were very rare. It turns out that this is Mother Nature's doings. The colour of a tulip depends upon the pigments present. Most tulips have two classes of pigments, an underlying base coat and a second coat of a different pigment. If you can vary the amount and coverage of the top coat, you can develop patterns on the petals. When this occurs, the tulip is said to have broken. So, you can have a pale base coat of say yellow or white and then bursts of colours over the top of this. In some cases, you can get incredibly fine streaks of colour along the length of the petals - imagine these in a deep, dark red or a brilliant, fiery orange, feathery patterns spreading out across the petal, bold colours contrasting against a pale background. If you are really lucky, you end up with a rare beauty, such as the Semper Augustus. I say lucky, since this exquisite, natural work of art was a one off and was caused by a virus. This means two things. The first - the tulip cannot, ever, be reproduced exactly, since you will not get two tulips to break in the same manner. The second - it results in the tulip being less fit, since it is infected with a virus. Once the Dutch realised what caused breaking in tulips and why these tulips were less fit, the unique beauty was doomed. The Dutch increased the fitness of their tulips by ridding them of their virus - so depriving the world of these magical beauties.

Much of the above information was gleaned from the book "The Botany of Desire" by Michael Pollan. Very interesting book. I also learnt, among other things, that apples do not grow true from seeds, which is why you have to graft branches on to root stocks to get a particular variety of apple. On a more bizarre note, I discovered the truth behind witches and their flying broomsticks. This is a little delicate and I shall try to put it nicely. Apparently their flying trips had more to do with psychoactive plants than with actual flying and their broomsticks were used to insert said plants into a witch's most private of places......ahem....I hope I don't have to elaborate. So much for riding the broomstick..........I think I am blushing!

I shall finish with an amusing titbit that I found while reading about tulips - since the Dutch are a bit strapped for space, they are thinking of making an island, much like the palm tree island of Dubai, only theirs, of course, would not be the shape of a palm tree but, rather, a tulip!


Anonymous said...

You mean a witches bejingo !!!!

Well, I think they must smoke too much to be spending so much on a flower .... they are one of my fav flowers, but, like most things, they always droop after a while ....

Anonymous said...

I shall leave it to the lovely M to comment on that comment!

Anonymous said...

I knew the thing about flying broomsticks and witches was something along those lines, but not all the details. I wonder what they used?

Have you read 'The Black Tulip' by Alexander Dumas? It's about that period in Dutch history where a man would literally let his family starve in order to get his hands on a rare tulip, and about the efforts to breed a true black one. It's fascinating.

Don't Bug Me! said...

Hi Jay,
No, I haven't read it - I shall add it to my ever increasing list of books to read.
As for witches and their plants - I shall do a bit of investigating and let you know what I can come up with.

Don't Bug Me! said...

Jay: A witche's potion might include datura, opium poppies, belladonna, hashish, fly-agaric mushrooms and skins of toads - but no eye of newt or puppy dog tails! Looks like quite a dangerous mixture to me. I wonder how many fell off their broomsticks and died horribly?