After compliments to the cook for a beautiful Easter dinner, conversation turned to the fat pink tulips gracing her table. It was news to most of us that botanists have traced wild tulips to the ancient Himalayas, and seventeenth century gardeners in the Ottoman Empire were the first to cultivate them, where they remain a big part of Turkish culture today.
The tulip’s history took a strange turn in Holland in the mid-17th century, when “tulip mania” swept much of Europe into a financial futures market much like our modern tech and real estate bubbles. Demand drove tulip prices so high that speculators were actually buying houses and other real goods with plants before the inevitable crash.
While fortunes were made and lost, some early interior designer had the clever idea to display cut flowers for the first time, giving rise to ceramic vases. Master Dutch artists added bouquets with tulips in vases to their still life paintings, leading the rest of the world to forever after link the colorful flowers with the Netherlands.
A wealthy Massachusetts landowner probably brought the first tulips to the U.S. in the mid-19th century, where their popularity spread quickly. The shapes and colors of modern tulips became synonymous with our spring holidays. We plant the bulbs in early fall to enliven our outdoor spaces at winter’s end, while spending millions to include them in bouquets on our Easter and Passover tables.
With Mother’s Day right around the corner, tulips will play a starring role again soon. Look for some unusual ones, like the “Flaming Parrot,” a frilly-edged red-and-white beauty. Be forewarned, you may experience some tulip mania of your own.