Wednesday, March 2, 2011
One day we were in the Jordaan area, thought to be named for the French Le Jardin (garden). Most of the alleyways and canals in this section are named for flowers and I visualize fields of tulips before we step through the door of Amsterdam’s Tulip Museum and meet the museum’s knowledgeable director Sjoerd van Eeden who brings the amazing history of the tulip to life.
A relative of the lily, the tulip did not originate in Holland but grew, wild and free, in the central Asian highlands. Brought by Sultans to Istanbul from Persia, the tulip thrived and reigned supreme in their gardens inspiring the admiration of Augerius Busbeguius, a Viennese Ambassador sent by the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Busbeguius introduced the tulip to Europe. Flowers grown from the seed the Ambassador sent to Vienna became enormously popular; before long seeds and bulbs were carried to many parts of Europe including Antwerp, Brussels, Paris and Prague. The wealthy were captivated by this entertaining pastime and western European gardens blazed with the flower by 1630. The tulip had become an icon of prosperity bought and sold by specialists and academics.
Carolus Clusius, a biologist from Vienna, became the director of Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, the oldest botanical garden in Europe, in the 1590s. He had a background in medicine and in Leiden, he researched medicinal plants. Clusius was one of the first to grow tulips, introducing the bulb to Holland. He experimented, performing crossbreeding and propagation with different species. Displaying his sizeable collection; he presented bulbs for sale in 1591. The price, Clusius asked for the bulbs was high and no one knows whether the bulbs were sold or stolen from his garden but the citizens of Leiden began growing bulbs that to this day remains a principal industry in Holland.
Sjoerd tells us the Sultans thought the flower resembled an upside down turban called dulban or tuliban and the name developed into tulip. By the 17th century, many outstanding selections of tulips were developed for the prosperous by horticulturists and were desired for their elegance or delicacy, varied hue, rarity and social standing. Tulipomania in Holland led to speculation (traders often earned as much as 60,000 florins (approximately $61,000) in a month). Tulip bulbs were traded until the cost reached the price of a house. Financial disaster followed in the crash of 1637; in less than two months, thousands of Dutch businessmen were bankrupt but the cultivation of tulips continued and today is run according to standard business practices.
Many of the tulips that stirred the speculation are still in existence and history’s tulips may be planted or, if you’re inspired by the Dutch Masters, painted today. They can be purchased through mail order catalogues and garden centers.
The tulip is a member of the onion family and during World War II was fried and eaten when food was scarce; gardeners may notice that squirrels and deer consider the flower a delicacy. Deer are not as attracted to daffodils, alliums, lilies, snowflakes and scilla.
Travelers passing fields of tulips, after their first bloom, may be surprised to see stems without heads. Tulips are allowed to flower for seven to ten days before mechanical harvesters clip the flower stalks to preserve nutrients for their bulbs. The flowers are often fed to cows; they prefer the red ones. The big business in Holland is supplying bulbs not flowers but the Dutch fill their gardens with magnificent blooms and purchase fragrant bouquets for less than five Euros and as I passed flower stalls in the daily markets, I longed to fill my hotel room with nature’s vibrant works of art.
The museum offers a film that takes the visitor to the tulip fields of the Netherlands and a modern tulip farm. The museum’s gift shop, Bloembollenwinkel (Bulb Basket) offers prints, books, mugs, antique tiles, delicate cups and saucers, vases and note paper in addition to bulbs. Prices range from 2.50 euros for a keychain to 14 for a T-shirt to 35 for a handbag. The keepsakes make lovely gifts and are a sweet remembrance of Holland’s favorite flower.
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