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HISTORY OF Tulips

by BRIAN MINTER
September 5, 2006

When we think of Tulips, we conjure up images of windmills, wooden shoes and canals, but in fact, it was the Turkish people, not the Dutch, who, as early as 1555AD, first admired, cultivated and traded this beautiful flower. During the reign of Ahmed III, who ruled the Ottoman Empire between 1703 and 1730, Tulips were more precious than gold. In fact, this period is often referred to as ‘The Age of Tulips’. Books were written, glorifying Tulips and offering information on their care and cultivation. Indeed, catalogues from this period listed 890 varieties for sale! When you compare this to the fact that we have about 800 varieties under cultivation today, that’s a pretty impressive inventory!

In the early 1600’s, Tulips replaced gold as the most precious trading commodity within the Ottoman Empire. Our recent fluctuations in the stock market are modest compared to the fluctuations of tulip values between the years 1634 and 1637. What occurred was a continuous buying and selling until the prices shot skyward. For example, one tulip bulb was sold for two loads of wheat, four loads of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat pigs, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four barrels of beer, two barrels of butter, a thousand pounds of cheese, a complete bed, a suit of clothes and a silver beaker! If you put values back 350 years, that was a very expensive bulb! In 1637, however, the bubble burst, and the Turkish government stepped in to put an end to the speculation and to restore economic order – all because of Tulips!

A gentleman, by the name of Clusius I, brought Tulips to Holland. They were accepted with such enthusiasm by the Dutch that they quickly became the most universally admired flower in the Netherlands. By the turn of the 18th century, over 1300 varieties were under cultivation. It wasn’t until early in the 20th century, however, that the Royal General Bulb Growers’ Society of Holland joined together with the Royal Horticultural Society of England to publish the first official list of Tulips. This list divided Tulips into 15 groups. Most folks are unaware of the great diversity of Tulips and how they can be utilized in our gardens to spread colour over a five month period. I worry, however, when I see folks purchasing Tulips ‘willy nilly’ in a garden shop, mixing early and late, tall and short, without a clear idea of how these varieties will look in their gardens.

Timing is everything! Due to the weather, there can be fluctuations of up to three weeks in blooming periods, and each area of the province is different. We can, however, roughly time the blooming periods by selecting the right groupings. For example, when it comes to colour, I’m a real maverick. To me, the nicest feature of plant materials is their ability to provide colour at times when we least expect it. A tulip is February or June is more precious to me than a tulip in April – everyone has them in April! What I like to do is make the early varieties bloom earlier and delay the late varieties even more.

Each year I take a few of the early Tulipa fosteriana and plant them in the warmest, south facing spot I can find. With shelter from the winter winds and extra heat from the early spring sun, March-flowering Tulips will bloom in late February – and what a precious sight that is! It’s always a shame to see Tulips finish, and here again, by planting some late cottage varieties, such as ‘Princess Margaret Rose’, in a cool, shady location, I can enjoy them in late June.

Springs here on the Coast are often so bad we might just as well forget about setting out early bedding plants, so why not plant more late varieties of Tulips to bloom well into May, then set our annuals out in June. The point is, with a little planning, we can have colour when our gardens need it most.

I encourage everyone to examine the fifteen groupings of Tulips, from the early ‘fosterianas’ to the late ‘Rembrandts’, and select colours in each family to bloom at specific times. Sure, it will take a few years of trial and error to get it right, but the results will be well worth it. And don’t forget, as a rule of thumb, the later the tulip blooms, the taller it grows, so this may be a factor in deciding the best location. And by the way, the price of Tulips have come way down since 1634, so you won’t have to bring your two oxen along to purchase a single bulb – unless, of course, it’s the new black tulip you’re after!

Article courtesy of:
Minter Gardens Minter Gardens

Exit #135 Highway #1, Chilliwack, BC, Canada   V2P 6H7

Phone: (604) 794-7191   Fax: (604) 792-8893

www.mintergardens.com/

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Oct 2008  Using Bulbs to enhance shrubs  Minter Gardens 
Sep 2008  Spring Bulbs, companion planting  Minter Gardens 
Sep 2006  History of Tulips  Minter Gardens 
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