Tulipomania: A Tale of Obsession, Greed and Flowers

Of the many strange and compelling stories of the classical world, few have held my fascination like the Tulipomania of the Dutch Golden Age. Driven by greed, lust and an obsessive desire for possession, a tulip flavoured frenzy of mass proportions swept the country, with some individuals paying the equivalent cost of a large house on Amsterdam’s most exclusive street to claim their right to one single bloom. Yet, as quickly as the whole commotion had begun it catapulted to a sudden halt, leaving a trail of broken hearts and debts in its wake. How did this brief blooming bulb from the Himalayan mountain ranges find its way to the heart of Dutch society and into the hands of the rich and wealthy?

Tulipa spp. are native to the mountainous highlands of Central Asia and parts of Southern Europe, where they can still be found today growing wild in spring. The bulbs require a particular climate – they need minus degree temperatures during winter dormancy for their blooms to set and warm temperate days during flowering. For an unsuspecting traveller wandering the trade route from Constantinople during the 16thC, the magnificence of a mountainside blanketed by wild tulips in flower must have been an impressive sight. The bulbs were soon retrieved from the earth and taken back to the capital as a gift for the sultan.

Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), the sultan who reigned during the rise of the Ottoman Empire, was infatuated by tulips, ordering the bulbs to be planted, grown and cultivated in the palace gardens. Aside from being drawn to the ephemeral beauty of the flower, the tulip resonated with the Ottomans – its symmetrical 6-petal structure physically similar to the turbans styled by the men and the shape of the word Allah in Arabic script resembling a tulip in bloom. The bulbs became central to the visual language of Islamic culture, with tulip illustrations decorating the walls and ceilings of mosques and temples. This fascination continued in the following centuries, with the period of 1718-1730 known as the Tulip Era. Annual tulip illuminations were celebrated each night during the spring blooming period and Sultan Ahmed III (1703-1730), known as the Tulip King, enforced laws that decreed the sale of tulips outside of Constantinople punishable by exile.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul is covered with more than 20,000 handmade ceramic 17th C Iznik tiles in more than fifty different tulip designs. Image by Dennis Jarvis

Tulip bulbs were occasionally gifted to foreign ambassadors visiting the East, which is how the plant found its way across the continent and into the dirt stained hands of Carlolus Clusius, a world-renowned botanist who was working at the time as the head of the Royal Medicinal Gardens in Prague. In 1593, Clusius was appointed the director of the Hortus Academicus botanical garden at the University of Leiden, and the tulip bulbs were amongst the plants he selected to relocate to his new workplace. The tulips soon thrived in the Leiden climate, and the Dutch, who had only seen illustrations of the elusive blooms before then, were instantly enchanted by the bulb, with word quickly spreading across the country of the flower’s magnificence.

Under the cover of darkness, Clusius’ tulip bulbs mysteriously began disappearing. Before long, the who’s who of Dutch society were either hankering to get their hands on their own tulip bulb or flashing a bloom or two from the windows of their homes. Tulipomania had officially begun.”

It’s worth noting at this stage of the story that the arrival of Clusius and his tulips couldn’t have happened at a better time for the Dutch. The 16th and 17th centuries was a period of great wealth and prosperity in the region, with the era later dubbed the Dutch Golden Age. Years of fighting the Eighty Year War against the Spanish had ceased and the Dutch Republic was unified; The Dutch East India Company was founded, increasing economy and bringing oriental trade; migrations of skilled Protestant workers created better industry; and an intellectually tolerant climate beckoned scientists, philosophers, artists, creators and thinkers acclaimed as the best in their fields to the cities. People had cash to spend, an eye for beauty and a society to show it off to. In other words, the climate was ripe for a flower frenzy to begin.

A symbol of wealth and luxury, the tulip became an overnight sensation, with buyers and traders bargaining for ownership of the blooms that were auctioned off at taverns across the city. The only problem was the bulb’s short blooming period – tulips usually only flower for around seven days in early spring, and if they are to flower again the next year, they must be allowed to wilt and decay back into the earth from where they began. Doing so creates duplicate bulbs beneath the earth, passing on the genetic structures of the parent plant to the newly multiplied bulbs. Growing from seed is possible, however this method is much slower, taking many years before flowering. Not to be deterred from their game, the wealthy traders soon found a way around this, drawing up contracts for the ownership of future flowers, speculating on the success of next year’s blooms and allowing different individuals to own the bulb at its different stages. When the bulbs were dormant, they were dug up and handed from the current owner to the future owner who would then pass on the bulb to the next future owner in the following dormant period, so on so forth. Ownership contracts were obsessively swapped, traded and on-sold multiple times throughout the year, the buyers playing the tulip stock exchange.

Satire on Tulip Mania, Jan Brueghel the Younger, c. 1640.
Still life of variegated tulips in a ceramic vase, with a wasp, a dragonfly, a butterfly and a lizard by Baltus van der Ast, 1625.

Although common varieties and single colours grew increasingly in value, it was the extremely rare broken tulips that were most sought after, their variegated petals especially magnificent. Unbeknownst at the time, these tulips were infected with a mosaic virus that mutated the cell structure of the flower, causing the spectacularly coloured patterns. Although beautiful, this virus weakened the bulb and would eventually lead to its premature death.

Of the broken tulips, the Semper Augustus, with its red and white striped petals, was the crème de la crème of the crop. In 1633 a buyer paid 5500 guilders for its bulb and by 1637, the bulb was worth twice that amount. Historian Mike Dash wrote of the payments in his historical account, Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused: ‘It was enough to feed, clothe and house a whole Dutch family for half a lifetime, or sufficient to purchase one of the grandest homes on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam for cash, complete with a coach house and an 80-ft garden – and this at a time when homes in that city were as expensive as property anywhere in the world.’

At the peak of tulip mania in 1636, possessing a tulip was the ultimate status symbol in Dutch society – a vase at the window overlooking the street or a bloom pinned into the buttonhole of a dress, a silent reminder of the opulence of its owner.”

Great painters of the time captured still life floral arrangements of tulips and portaits of wives with cut flowers perched in their fingertips. It would seem that the infatuation with the blooms would only continue to grow, but spectacularly in 1637, an auction in Harlem failed to draw a single buyer. Overnight, the tulip market had collapsed.

Those in possession of future bulb contracts scrambled to sell-on before losses were too high, and those owed money began knocking on the doors of the debtors. Requests for the government to step in to resolve the frenzy were largely ignored, with the businessman, who were mostly from the upper classes, left to work out the situation amongst themselves. Though the effects of the tulip mania market crash had no immediate effects on the economic stability of the country or its position as a leading Western power, the tulip fell spectacularly out of fashion for a time, its bloom a sore reminder of the game that many had played and lost.

In the Netherlands today, the charm of the tulip has been restored, with people once again enchanted by its blooms. No longer though, is this a sport for the wealthy alone, with street side vendors peppered amongst city streets selling carts of bulbs in every colour, pattern and variety for the cost of breadcrumbs. Each Spring, millions of tourists pour into the country to witness the mass plantings of tulips emerging from the earth, delighted by the colour and elegance of the blooms. It’s a tulip mania of a different kind this time.


Semper Augustus tulip, the bloom worth the cost of the most expensive house on the most exclusive street in Amsterdam.
Tulips for sale in the Netherlands today. Image by djackson_photos