Originally a wildflower from Asia, Europe’s love for tulips meant that some bulbs were worth more than a house during the height of the Dutch craze for the plant, as Charlotte Tombs relates.
The tulip was a wildflower originally growing in Central Asia. It was first cultivated by the Turks as early as 1,000 AD.
Mania in Turkey struck in the 16th century at the time of the Ottoman Empire when a particular Sultan demanded certain flowers for his pleasure. The name ‘tulip’ comes from the Turkish word for turban which makes a lot if sense when you consider the shape of both. Tulips remained popular in Turkey, thereafter and in the early 18th Century the tulip era really began. There were tulip festivals and it became a crime punishable by exile to buy or sell the tulips outside the capital.
Constantinople to Amsterdam
The flowers arrived in northern Europe in the 16th century. Their introduction was thought to be by a botanist from Vienna, Clausius, who became the director of the oldest botanical garden in Leiden. He was friendly with the ambassador of Constantinople who sent him a samples of this wonder flower. This is believed to be the start of the bulb fields in the Netherlands today. At this time the tulip was being used for medicinal purposes but by the beginning of the 17th century they were gaining popularity in gardens and the bulbs were beginning to be sold for unbelievable amounts of money.
Hybridized flowers were being bred to be very decorative, and in the autumn of 1636 some bulbs were reaching larger amounts of money than a house in Amsterdam! Things came to a crash in 1637 when people came to their senses and stopped buying the bulbs for such high prices. Throughout the 17th and 18th century interest remained high in these bulbs and the Dutch became the true connoisseurs of this incredible
It was discovered in the 20th century that the frilly petals and flames on the flowers were actually caused by a virus – this has now been bred out of them, and the fancy tulips are now genetically stable although some are deliberately bred to retain this look.
Close planting for longer stems
This year I have planted nearly 2,000 bulbs with 25 different varieties. I plant them very closely together so I can get a longer stem (they fight for light and go upwards) which is more saleable. I treat the bulb as an annual and all the spent bulbs are composted. There are some varieties that will come back year after year but the flowers are smaller and less well-defined. British grown tulips are amazing and far superior to the supermarkets ones which are generally mass-grown imports.Some tulips are even scented but this has been bred out of the imports.
by Charlotte Tombs
Charlotte offers Workshops through the year – please see northcombe.co.uk for further details.