History of Dutch Flower Bulbs

The history of the Dutch flower bulbs industry really started well before Holland became a horticultural nation. And there is an unfounded historical rumor that it came about as a result of theft.

The story goes somewhat like this:

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire to Suleiman the Magnificent first saw tulips growing in 1554. We know that seeds were sent to Europe because in 1582, Richard Hakluyt writing in England wrote, “With these four years there have been brought into England from Vienna in Austria diverse kinds of flowers called Tulipes and these and others procured thither a little before from Constantinople by an excellent man called Mr. Carolus Clusius.” (ref. The New R.H.S. Dictionary of Gardening)

In 1593, Carolus Clusius had tulips in his botanic garden in Leiden University where he was a professor. But these were all stolen. And shortly thereafter, they were widely available in Holland. Now whether there is a connection there or not is up to speculation as the thieves were never caught. It does make a good story though. :-)

However the bulbs arrived, the Dutch took to tulips like ducks to water and gave us one of the most famous of horticultural history stories. The period known as Tulipmania was from 1634-1637 and intense price speculation drove the costs of single tulip to stratospheric heights. Fortunes were made and lost over a single bulb and while many of them never even saw the ground, the interest this generated created an industry. And ever since that time, the Dutch flower bulb industry has existed and increased in size every year (excluding war years). It now exports literally millions of bulbs every year around the world.

Cocktail Party Facts

Here are a few small facts for you to drop at your next cocktail party.

By the early 1700’s the number of tulip varieties in the Dutch flower bulb catalogs had reached over 1300 varieties but many of these are no longer available today.

And if you’re looking to discover the species tulips that make up our modern hybrids and colours, you’re going to have to get into line. Botanists are working on gene identification but the bottom line is that so many plants have been used as parents that it is virtually impossible to identify any single species that can be said to be the “parent” of the modern garden tulip.

Tulips and other bulbs were quite popular in Turkey in the 1500 through 1700’s and orders of 50,000 bulbs or more were not uncommon. Turkey even had its own Tulipmania in the early 1700’s. The bulbs were so popular and prices fluctuating so wildly that the sultan had to order standard pricing – one of the first examples of price-controls.

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