Tulips come from Holland. Right? Wrong! Or at least, they haven't always. Tulips come from Turkey, the only country in the world to call one of its major eras of national history—the years 1700 to 1730—the "Tulip Period." And how that era got its name . . . thereby hangs a tale.
Tulips, even in the early 18th century, were nothing new to Turkey. Along with other bulbous plants such as the narcissus, the hyacinth and the daffodil, tulips had grown there for centuries, both wild and domesticated for house and garden. The Tulip Period took its name from an established hobby, which started as court fashion, grew into a generalized fad and fancy, and finally became an explosion of unrestrained international speculation in bulbs which buyers never even saw.
It all began when tulips first went to Europe. In 1550, no one in Holland had heard of tulips. Different varieties do grow wild in North Africa and from Greece and Turkey all the way to Afghanistan and Kashmir. Very occasionally they are even found in southern France and Italy, usually in vineyards or on cultivated land, which has led some botanists to speculate that they may have been brought back by the Crusaders.
The Persians were familiar with tulips, but they didn't domesticate them as thoroughly as the Turks. For centuries they admired the flowers wild. Even as decorative motifs in Persia, they were never as popular as the narcissus, iris or rose.
In Turkey it was different. The Turks cultivated them in flower beds and window boxes and they used the flowers as patterns on textiles and rugs, ceramic tiles, buildings and fountains and even, especially in the case of women, on tombstones. Their name for the tulip was lale, but another Turkish word, dulband, or "turban," is the origin of our English name, presumedly because of the flower's shape.
For Ottoman officialdom in 16th-century Istanbul, gardening was a restful hobby, cultivated as a respite from the pressures of the job. Miniature paintings from that century show Turkish gardens to have had an air of relaxed formality. Brick walls defined the borders; four posts marked the corners. On one side a willow or wisteria might be trained up and over a trellis for shade. Stepped terraces of brick or grass embankments led up in the center or at one end to a fountain jetting water into a formal pool. There the Turks planted tulips, marching them in red, yellow and variegated rows along the walkways and up around the fountains.
One of the most notable Turks of the 16th century, the empire's supreme justice, Ebu es-Suud Effendi, was a gardener and tulip hobbyist. One can imagine him at the end of the day strolling quietly through his gardens beside the dark flowing Bosporus, his long full robes brushing the brick path, draped sleeves flapping gently in the evening air, his hugely wrapped white turban bent down to the rows of small red turbans lifted up beside the paths.
Some evenings he might have been joined by his colleague Sokollu Mehmet Pasha, the Grand Vizier, who also enjoyed gardens. Sokollu Mehmet not only kept a garden of his own near Ebu es-Suud's, but also had one laid out for his sovereign, Selim II, complete with garden house and tulip beds.
Then, in 1554, an Austrian with a curious mind and an appreciation of flowers noticed the tulips on his way to Istanbul. He was Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I's ambassador to the Sultan at Constantinople. De Busbecq described them in a letter home.
"As we passed, we saw everywhere an abundance of flowers, such as the narcissus, hyacinth and those called by the Turks tulipan, not without great astonishment on account of the time of the year, as it was then the middle of the winter, a season unfriendly to flowers. . . . The tulipan . . . have little or no smell, but are admired for their beauty and variety of color."
De Busbecq carried seeds back to Vienna and a few years later, in 1559, Konrad Gesner, the Swiss naturalist, saw garden tulips growing at Augsburg, Germany, which he described as having "one large reddish flower, like a red lily." The picture of a tulip in his gardening book of 1561 is the first known in Europe.
The blossoms not only excited the curiosity of European scholars, but also that of enterprising florists. In no less than 10 years after de Busbecq had carried the first seeds back, a trader in Antwerp, Belgium, had imported the first shipment of bulbs from Istanbul; a year or two later they had reached Holland. So the Dutch tulip was born.
This was an expanding Europe, a prosperous Europe of cheap credit, and money to spend on luxuries such as tulip bulbs. Living in the Age of Exploration, it was a Europe intensely curious about exotica from the East, and willing to pay to own a piece of it. By 1600 tulips had been completely studied for possible use for everything from the treatment of gout to cheap nutrition. The great Dutch botanist, Professor Clusius of Leiden, met de Busbecq in Vienna, obtained some seeds from him and, being an eminently practical man, raised the bulbs with an eye to their food value. He ordered an apothecary to preserve them in sugar. This idea, however, did not catch on. The Dutch never came to eat tulip bulbs for pleasure and were only forced to eat them at all in the darkest days of World War II.
As both medicine and food, tulips were failures. But with their extraordinary ability to break and change color—due, we now know, to a tulip-loving virus—they were fantastic for the garden hobbyist. The Dutch bred thousands of varieties, made them a central motif in their paintings and, a few years later, would go mad over them.
Tulips first reached England in 1578, but they seem not to have become popular there immediately. They are not among the many flowers mentioned by Shakespeare. Their popularity grew over the years, however, and Parkinson, the author of the great gardening book known as Paradisus, published in 1629, reports that it is "profitable for them that have a convulsion in their necke (which wee call a cricke in the necke) if they be drunk in harsh (which we call red) wine." In the reign of Charles I tulips gained enormous popularity, surpassing the rose and daffodil, and a number of theologians, on account of their great beauty, declared that they must be the "lily of the field" mentioned in the Bible, where it says "Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."
In spite of the flower's growing popularity, however, "tulipomania," or tulip madness, did not grip England as it soon would Holland. For this the poet and essayist Joseph Addison, who first coined that word in a satire against tulips in the Tatler, can probably be given credit. France, on the other hand, where tulips are first mentioned rather late, in 1608, was seriously affected by the craze, as Alexandre Dumas recounts in his novel The Black Tulip.
By 1620 tulips were regarded as de rigueur for every palace garden in northern Europe. This fashion, established by aristocratic display, spread among wealthy merchants with upward ambitions. The result, between 1634 and 1637, was the first speculative horticultural boom and bust in European history. Tulipomania is not too strong a word to describe what happened.
In Holland, one day in the early 1630's, a single Viceroy tulip bulb changed hands. Its price, paid in kind, was as follows: two loads of wheat, four loads of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat pigs, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four barrels of eight-florin beer, two barrels of butter, 1,000 pounds of cheese, a complete bed, a suit of clothes and a silver beaker.
The whole was valued at 2,500 florins. About the same time, one bulb of Semper Augustus was sold for twice that sum, plus a fine new carriage and pair. Another single bulb was considered a lavish dowery; a fourth was exchanged for a flourishing brewery. In the end the market, weakened by heavy trading in tulip futures—paper purchases of bulbs to be dug the following summer—collapsed in a few scant months. Hundreds of fortunes were lost; the court of Holland had to step in to restore fiscal stability.
Back in Istanbul, meanwhile, the tulip business went on almost as usual. True, prices were up in response to foreign demand. And regularly the rumor would make its rounds in the marketplace of an international cloak-and-dagger plot concerning the elusive "black tulip," the one color no one could produce. The florists' guild increased its membership, and more gardens were laid out.
At the palace, the demand for tulips remained high, and not only to serve the Sultan's pleasure. The Ottoman Foreign Service was well aware of Europe's taste for tulips. In 1651, nearly on the centennial of the bulb's introduction in the West, the Turks sent another Austrian ambassador back to Vienna with gifts, the most prized of which were 10 new varieties of the flower. In Europe they were promptly given names like Maximilianus, Roses of Leiden, Herzog Max, Van den Vilde and Belle Voir.
But although tulips were still special in Turkey, in the 17th century they werecertainly not considered something to throw one's fortune away on, as the foolish foreigners had. Not, that is, until the early 1700's, when what had happened in Amsterdam 100 years earlier occurred again in Istanbul: tulip madness.
Sultan Ahmet III, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1703 until 1730, liked flowers. More than that, he liked garden parties. It wasn't long before his reign began that the final Turkish seige of Vienna had failed, and the empire was forced into the humiliating Treaty of Karlowitz (1699). By the terms of this treaty the Empire was obliged to sign away to European powers large pieces of territory in the Balkans. Istanbul was anxious to forget about war and defeat. A peace party was in power and in the palace, and it was glad to encourage the Sultan in his taste for entertaining. Better flowers than battles, certainly. Society was ready to be diverted by a harmless fad, and the fad that appeared was the tulip.
The spring palace garden parties were spectacular diversions. Days before the big event, agents combed the local market for blossoms, thousands upon thousands of them. Servants placed them in colored bottles strategically located in the garden beds to supplement the plantings. They massed more blooms in banks on wooden benches set about the open lawns. Evening parties were the fashion, with lamps and candles placed along the paths and above the beds. At one such party dozens of tortoises with small lanterns tied to their backs plodded among the flowers.
Soon the city aristocracy entered the game, competing among themselves not only for the most novel garden entertainment, but more seriously for the best blooms. Tulip shows were held, often under palace patronage, with the best-of-show tulip receiving a certificate of merit signed by the Sultan himself—as well as a purse of gold.
A fad in any literate society brings out books; Ottoman Istanbul was no exception. "How-to" books on gardening had been written before in Turkey; now they appeared in numbers. Like old cook books, they make good reading today. The Balance of Blossoms by Shaykh Mehmet Lalezari—his last name means Golden Tulip—written in the 1720's, could have been published this year and most garden fanciers wouldn't notice much difference between it and its neighbors on their shelves.
"One must pay careful attention to the soil in which you plant your tulips," the author begins. His advice continues: don't use clay soil; it won't drain and the bulbs will rot. Dig rich black soil from the lower southern slopes of a nearby hill and put it through a sieve with holes no bigger than a hazelnut. Then mix it with an equal part of sand or gravel. Dig out the top 1.2 inches of your flower bed, cover the bottom with about six inches of medium-sized stones and add enough of your new dirt to level the bottom surface at whatever depth you plan on planting your bulbs. Lalezari has strong opinions about soil. But note well, as did 18th-century Turkish gardeners reading him, that what is good soil for tulips is not good soil for other kinds of bulbs.
What about fertilizer? Lalezari prefers rotted cow manure, though he points out that some gardeners still swear by composted grape dregs, left over from pressing. His contemporary, Ruznamcezade, a specialist in the narcissus, writes in his Essay on Flowers that he agrees. "I prefer mixing one part of cow manure . . . with four parts of soil and letting it stand three years before applying. . . . Next is sheep manure, which is known to have nitrate in it— but burns. Next is horse manure, then grape compost, which is good for carnations but not much good for other flowers. . . . For me, no fertilizer will do except old rotted cow manure from a village pasture."
Once planted, says Lalezari, the tulip beds need mulching or rough matting to guard against a sharp freeze. Once up, the plants need shade to guard against burning by the sun. Once blooming, the shade must remain to preserve the color from fading. Watering is best done thoughtfully, early in the morning or at night.
When and how do you cut tulips for indoor display? Lalezari tells you. Once cut, how do you keep the blooms from dropping their petals? Lalezari suggests that you keep the vase out of the full sun, and at night place it outside in the open where the breeze can reach it, facing the stars.
The handbooks are full of miscellaneous hints. Don't use river rock in the beds; they attract insects which eat the plants and are hard to get rid of. What about bugs? Some you can hunt down at night with a candle. Others . . . well, for some the only remedy is to keep a few chickens and ducks in the garden during the winter. They'll clean it out by the time the first buds show.
Oddly enough, there's not a word about moles and mice. And there's no question of "organic versus chemical" in Lalezari's book.
Not all of the tulip essays were "how-to's." Some were show books, listing the names of all the tulips on the Istanbul market with brief descriptions by color and shape. One listing of 1726 gives some 890 named varieties. Most books have a section listing the characteristics of the gold medal tulip, the tulip that wins the prize at the flower shows: length of stem, shape and location of leaves, shape and size of petals, color patterns, how well they keep after cut, strength of bulb and how well it stores—the list is a long one, and detailed.
These books fueled the fire and the tulip craze spread, with all the accompanying wheeling and dealing that one might expect. It was Amsterdam of 1637 all over again. And as in Amsterdam, the government finally had to step in to cool off the market. In 1726 the head of the palace flower gardens, our friend Lalezari, was ordered to call a general meeting of all city tulip dealers. At that meeting he announced that price controls were to be established and enforced. Each dealer was to list all of his varieties. Lalezari would set a price for each and that price was to be maintained in the market. Violations would be punished by confiscation of stock and the exile of the offending merchant. Orders to that effect went out from the city courts.
The price freeze worked; at least, speculation died out.
Tulips, of course, did not. They continued to be the mainstay of every planted garden in Turkey. With the passing of Sultan Ahmet III and the peace party, the Tulip Period drew to a close. An expanding Russia insured that the rest of the 18th century would see the Ottoman Empire continually at war. The 19th century was dominated by the modernization movement, which led to great changes in governmental and life style; the 20th, by Ataturk's revolution, which uprooted nearly every traditional Ottoman institution. Except the tulips.
You can still buy them today in Istanbul in the garden shops next to the old Spice Bazaar facing the Golden Horn, or in cut bouquets from street sellers on Taksim Square, in the shadow of the new Inter-Continental Hotel. Come spring and the weeks of blooming, crowds from all over the city stroll through the Emirgan tulip gardens, the most famous of Istanbul, to celebrate the season and enjoy the color.
Whether you're a Turkish Sultan, a Dutch burgemeester or an ordinary household variety American gardener, nothing beats the winter for you like the tulip. Centuries, periods and fads come and go, but every spring as the snows melt, tulips will be with us still. And thank God for them, every one.
Jon Mandaville, an associate professor of history and Middle East studies at Portland State University, is a frequent contributor to Aramco World.