How tulips went from
currency to commodity
The fascinating story of this beloved flower that heralds the springtime
By Michael Walsh
April 6, 2023
A tulip doesn’t strive to impress anyone. It doesn’t struggle to be different than a rose. It doesn’t have to. It is different. And there’s room in the garden for every flower…
– Marianne Williamson
One of the downsides of city living is the increasing loss of tolerance for the winter season. I, for one, no longer enjoy winter. In fact, if one were to poll a sample of residents and ask, “What is the most unpleasant aspect of city living?”, many answers would be “coping with winter’s snow”.
Today, regarded as a “blight upon the land,” snow is collected and dumped into the municipal sewers or deposited in the former Francon Quarry in Saint-Michel – forming a massive dark grey polluted mass that creates a large lake, littered with plastic bottles, as it melts throughout the summer months.
On the city’s streets and sidewalks, the residual snow is mixed with crushed gravel, sand, sodium calcium and chlorides forming the familiar icy brown “slush” that remains underfoot until the end of April. A far cry from winter’s poetic description “The snow is sparkling like a million little suns.”
Is it little wonder, during this time of year, that one can observe residents scanning various residential gardens, still littered with winter’s debris, for immature stems emerging from last season’s bulbs. As spring approaches, the earliest flowers include the short-stemmed snowdrop, crocus and hyacinth that slowly blanket the gardens in a variety of monochrome colours.
These are followed by the spectacular tulips, with their long delicate leafless stems that support bell-shaped flowers in a seemingly endless array of solid and variegated colours. What is most interesting about these plants is that their historical background is well documented; however, their biological mechanisms are still not fully understood.
‘Interestingly, although regarded as quintessentially Dutch, tulips originated in Turkey. In the mid-1500s, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, ambassador to Istanbul, and his physician, Willem Quackelbeen, transported tulip bulbs and specimens to European countries.’
Further to this point, tulips (Tulipa) are a member of the Lily (Liliaceae) family of flowering plants. One knows that, as a bulbous species, tulips require a prolonged cold period for stem elongation and anthesis (the period in which the flower is fully opened). Why the species requires an optimal ten-week prolonged cold period is, to this day, not fully understood. What is known, however, is that the water content in the flower buds without cold treatment is reduced by one-half. One explanation suggests that cold temperatures encode a protein that facilitates water transport.
Another interesting aspect of these plants occurs in the tulip industry. In the process of handling large quantities of bulbs, workers can develop an allergic reaction that manifests into a form of hand dermatitis. Termed “Tulip Finger,” symptoms include redness, dry scaling of the skin and inflammation around the nails.
First described in workers in the Netherlands, the allergen responsible for this condition, tuliposide (a glycoside of tulipain A), resides in the outer layer of tulip bulbs. The plant produces this compound as a protection against fungal pathogens. Unfortunately, most protective gloves (except for nitrate) offer little protection from this allergen.
In addition, the plant produces lycorine, a toxic alkaloid. If ingested, it inhibits protein synthesis and various neurotransmitter enzymes.
On a positive note, the purple tulip variety (Tulipa Gesneriana) is rich in antioxidant flavonoids. Recent studies reported in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology indicated that these substances, through a tissue healing process, can significantly reduce skin aging.
Interestingly, although regarded as quintessentially Dutch, tulips originated in Turkey. In the mid-1500s, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Flemish ambassador to Istanbul, and his physician, Willem Quackelbeen, transported tulip bulbs and specimens to European countries.
‘Once entrenched into Dutch culture, tulips became regarded as valuable objects – like rare coins and valuable paintings. During the Dutch Golden Age… the Dutch underwent a ‘Tulip Craze’ by investing large sums of money in bulbs that would not bloom for months.’
They were first planted in Augsburg, Bavaria (1559) and in the Leiden University botanical gardens (Hortus Botanicus of Leiden), which obtained over 600 tulip bulbs.
Once entrenched into Dutch culture, tulips became regarded as valuable objects – like rare coins and valuable paintings. During the Dutch Golden Age (1588-1672) (also ironically referred to as “the age of reason”), the Dutch underwent a “Tulip Craze” by investing large sums of money in bulbs that would not bloom for months. During the period of 1634-1637, speculators regarded the bulbs as “nature’s most spectacular deferred investments.”
The most valuable tulips were those with variegated stripes that break the solid colours. Termed “broken tulips,” these patterns are formed by the tulip-breaking virus (a member of the potato virus group of plant pathogens), distributed by several species of aphids. Symptoms include streaking, striping and flames on the petals.
The most coveted broken tulip was the Semper Augustus, reportedly selling for 10,000 guilders – the equivalent price of a grand house along the Amsterdam canal. (This variety was forced into extinction to prevent the spread of TBV).
Between 1634 and 1637, tulips were sold and traded to such an extent that prices rose astronomically in the flower market and eventually collapsed. Interestingly, this did not destabilize the Dutch marketplace – it did, however, allow the tulip to flourish as a beautiful plant that blooms in the spring and summer.
Today, the Netherlands produces over 4,000 varieties of the world’s tulips in every colour (except blue), with an annual economic value of 250 million Euros.
Finally, the tulip festivals throughout North America and Europe that celebrate the arrival of spring are a stark contrast to the loss of this species in the wild. More specifically, due to the online sales of “botanical tulips” as opposed to commercialized hybrid varieties. The former is obtained from their native habitats and sold worldwide, raising concerns for their sustainability. Most recently, Greece has enacted legislation providing national protection status for these species.
Next time you hold a tulip bulb in your hands, be sure to wear nitrate gloves and imagine the rainbow of colours hidden beneath its paper-like surface. Plus, if you could step back 390 years, that one bulb could have been bartered for a large Montreal farmstead.
Feature image: Keukenhof Park, Lisse, Netherlands, by Luu, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident. He is happily retired from nearly four decades in the field of higher education technology. A “professional student” by nature, his academic training, and publishing, include statistical methodology, mycology and animal psychology. During this period, he was also an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. Prior to moving to Montreal, he was contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Education evaluating bilingual primary and secondary school programs. Today, he enjoys spending time with his (huge) Saint Bernard while discovering the city’s past and sharing stories of the majestic trees that grace the parks and streets. He can be contacted at michaelld2003 @hotmail.com or through his blog Westmount Overlooked