Like the Dutch tulip crazy of the early 1600's, I am always interested in the most unusual tulips. It may be a little past the prime time for these bulbs in our area, but Tulipia 'Party Time' is deserving of a spotlight this week, and allows me to illustrate a great lesson in plant history. A member of the Fringed group, this Biltmore Series tulip is definitely unusual, and has put on a show for over a week.
I first read deeper into the Dutch Tulip-mania in Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan (a book I recommend to any plant-lover). However, I have been re-introduced to the topic through a plant pathology class that I am in, and continue to be mesmerized by the power these small bulbs brought. Tulips are important in the field of plant pathology because the first ever described plant virus was the cause of the sought-after color breaking on Tulip flowers... so here's a little gardeners history lesson, and some pretty pictures!
Tulipia, the genus of Tulips, is named for the Turkish word for turban, which the flower resembles. Found growing wild in Turkey, and later cultivated by the local people, the cultivated Tulip was first brought to Holland in the 16th century. The bulbs thrived in the temperate climate, and an industry was born! By the beginning of the 17th century, horticultural experimenting created many new varieties. These exotic and expensive mutations were coveted by the rich for their beauty, rarity, and status. When the middle class realized how much the rich would pay for these bulbs, tulip-mania was born.
Based on futures markets, Tulip prices skyrocketed. For just one rare bulb exhibiting color breaking, the seller received: 2 loads of wheat, 4 fat oxen, 8 fat pigs, 12 fat sheet, 2 hogsheads of wine, 4 barrels of beer, 2 barrels of butter, 100 pounds of cheese, a bed, a suit of clothes, and a silver beaker! The rarest bulbs brought equivalent to US$ 50,000 in gold. The amazing thing is these "rare" bulbs would actually die over time from the virus which caused them to be so unique. But, there was not enough time to make that discovery, as the Tulip-mania only lasted 2 years, at which time the market crashed and sellers were forced to give or throw away bulbs. Plant viruses would not be recognized until almost 300 years later (This information is from Plant Pathology 601 at NC State University). Just a little food for thought, as we all enjoy our spring tulip blooms.
"For look into a flower, and what do you see? Into the very heart of nature’s double nature—that is, the contending energies of creation and dissolution, the spring toward complex form and the tidal pull away from it. Apollo and Dionysus were names the Greeks gave to these two faces of nature, and nowhere in nature is their contest as plain or as poignant as it is in the beauty of a flower and its rapid passing…Could that be it—right there, in a flower—the meaning of life?"
~Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire