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Flower Power

Widely available at modest prices today, tulips are still closely associated with the Netherlands. However, the tulip is not a native Dutch flower. Here's a story on tulips, an ambassador with a green thumb and the practice of tulip speculation.

One day, a Dutch farmer went to the market, wanting to buy a tulip. Having found a seller
who carried the specific variety of flower he desired, our farmer entered into negotiations and finally agreed on a price both deemed reasonable to pay for one single tulip-bulb: a thousand pounds of cheese, eight pigs, a dozen sheep, four tons of butter, four fat oxen, two loads of wheat and four of rye, two ox heads of wine, a bed, some clothing and a silver beaker.

Such a high price for a tulip was not unusual during the socalled Dutch ‘Tulipomania’ in
the 17th century. Widely available at modest prices today, tulips are still closely associated with the Netherlands. However, the tulip is not a native Dutch flower. Scientists say that Inner Asia is the most important gene center of the plant. Europeans, first saw tulips in Turkey. Credit for this ‘discovery’ goes to a 16th century Flemish writer, herbalist and diplomat named Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq who witnessed blooming tulips growing in the gardens of Adrianople and Constantinople while he served as the Austrian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The ambassador was an avid collector, acquiring valuable manuscripts and apparently all kinds of rarities. He brought several bulbs and seeds of the curious flower back from his journey and gave some to a botanist named Carolus Clusius, another key figure in the history of European tulip interest. Head botanist of the Dutch university in Leiden, Clusius started to experiment with the flower, producing new color variations. Some of his new variants , such as the ‘Semper Augustus,’ were highly over-priced, and consequently, became outstandingly fashionable: a luxury item people wanted to possess, no matter what the cost – and so the craze began. As the bulbs were usually sold by weight while they were still un-sprouted, a speculation market emerged.

Access and demand

Some began selling promissory notes guaranteeing the future delivery of the tulip bulb. The buyers of these resold the notes at marked-up prices. Promissory notes changed hands from buyer to buyer until the tulip became ready for delivery. The key was to be able to resell the note before the tulip could be delivered; the unlucky gambler was the person who could no longer resell the note because he now owned the actual tulip. This process became known as the ‘tulip wind trade,’ because transactions involved nothing more than thin air. As the mania increased, tulip prices soared to fantastic heights especially if the variety was rare or particularly striking.

People actually converted their property into cash, and invested it in flowers.
But, like every mania, the Tulipomania had begun its downfall, too. Bright colors and frilly petals were no longer that impressing. Over-supply led to lower prices and a universal panic seized upon the dealers. To end the frenzy, the Dutch government had to interfere by enforcing economic controls. It was declared that anyone who had bought contracts to purchase bulbs in the future could void their contract by payment of a 10 percent fee. Attempts were made to resolve the situation to the satisfaction of all parties, but these were unsuccessful. In 1637, finally, the market crashed. It took a while until the commerce of the country recovered from the severe shock, caused by something as common as a flower. Even today, tulipomania or tulip madness is used as a term for any economically absurd group craze where speculation borders with senseless gambling.

Today’s flourishing business

The bulb sector in the Netherlands is a world market leader. The flower auction at Aalsmeer is the largest flower market in the world, with an annual turnover of EUR 4 billion. According to NL EVD International, a division of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, approximately 60% of the global production and more than 80 percent of the trade is realized within the country. Additionally , most of the production of flower bulbs abroad is in Dutch hands, too. Most bf the flowers are grown under glass. The Netherlands have approximately 10,000 hectares of glasshouses. One third of this is dedicated to cut flowers, primly tulips. Today, much research is devoted to reducing energy consumption in glasshouses. This has led to experiments with solar panels on glasshouses and floating glasshouses and geothermal energy. The most popular area of tulip related research is in the area of the scents of bulb flowers. The tulip is currently better known for its bright colors than for its scent. There are, however, several Double Early Tulips that have a nice scent, almost like honey.

Flowers are not only key export products of Holland, but they also draw many tourists from all over the world. In 1949, the first international flower show was held in Keukenhof. This place, dubbed ‘the world's largest flower garden,’ is still the country'smain attraction with its velvety lawns, old trees, ponds, pavilions filled with exotic plants, birds and butterflies, and of course, millions of tulips. The Dutch, themselves, adore tulips, as well. Every year, when the Pope delivers his ‘Urbi et Orbi’ speech, they look forward to hear those magic words: "Thanks for the flowers from the Netherlands."

Beauty by disease

In the 20th century, it was discovered that the frilly petals and dramatic flames that gave tulips a stunning look, in fact, were the symptoms of an infection of the mosaic virus, caused by a louse living on peaches and potatoes. The healthy flower is supposed to be solid, smooth and monotone. Diseased varieties are no longer sold, what one can find is hybrids that look similar but are genetically stable. By now, almost 4,000 horticultural varieties have been developed. When celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2009, Royal Dutch Airlines KLM has received its own variation, a light green and white hybrid, called ‘Tulipa KLM.’

Tulipa Hungarica

Hungarian folk art is built with unbelievable richness around the tulip. The tulip-theme occurs regularly in folk songs, painted wooden chests (called "tulip chests"), wooden headboards, coins and shields. The motif can also be found on the Hungarian Holy Crown. The fact that this motif survived through centuries tells us that Hungarians preserved it as an important symbol, most likely of femininity. According to some research, the motif itself must have developed through thousands of years, from prehistoric cave carvings depicting female figures. The word ’tulip’ is thought to be a corruption of the Turkish word for turbans so called because of the flower’s resemblance to a turban.

Réka Alíz Francisck

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