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From the garden of Beth DiGioia, Garden Coach at L3H2, Inc.

I have always loved flowers and am drawn to the artwork of the Dutch Masters.  One artist whose works particularly appeal to me is Rachel Ruysch, who created vibrant and colorful paintings of flowers.  Her gender confined her to what was seen (at the time) as the “lowest form of painting”, but she was so skilled that she achieved international fame in her lifetime.  Of course, she wasn’t the only Dutch Master who painted this genre; the most celebrated artist was Jan Brueghel the Elder, who painted lush arrangements in oils on copper.

Rachel Ruysch painting:


Jan Brueghel the Elder:

These paintings included the popular flowers of the time: rose, hyacinth and carnations.  But if you look closely, you will also see tulips.  We consider tulips an unremarkable flower, but it wasn’t always so.  In fact, when tulips were introduced to Europe they created such a stir that collectors, and later speculators, created a frenzy of trading referred to as Tulip Fever (or Tulipmania).

History recounts that Ogier de Busbeca was the first to introduce tulips to Vienna from the Ottoman Empire in 1554.   The tulip was different from any other flower seen in Europe at the time with its long, hollow stem, thick, crinkled leaves and a rounded bowl of petals in deep, saturated colors.  Soon tulip bulbs were eagerly shared amongst friends and this strange new flower became coveted as the new-new thing.

Bulbs were in short supply, so gardeners started growing tulips from seed.  Plants grown from seed often do not resemble their parents and soon unusual offspring started appearing with streaked (referred to as “flamed”) coloration and feathered edges.  We now know that these unusual flowers are a result of being infected with a virus (“tulip breaking virus”) which can lead to decreased vigor.

The vividly colored and unusual looking flowers were rare and exotic and became highly sought after.  Supply and demand of these rare flowers led to an increase in the price of these bulbs.  As a result, plant breeders quickly went to work to produce a profusion of new varieties.  Single colored tulips (white, red or yellow) were known as Couleren; white streaks on a red or pink petal were known as Rosen; white streaks on a purple or lavender petal were known as Violetten; and the rare white or yellow streaks on a red, brown or purple petal were known as Bizarres.

Up until this point, most tulip bulb sales were to gardeners and collectors, but in 1634 speculators entered the market and the price of the rare bulbs exploded; even common bulbs became prohibitively expensive.   It is reported that single tulip bulbs were sold for the price of a thriving business (a brewery valued at 30,000 francs was traded for a single bulb), land (12 acres of land was traded for a single bulb) and other possessions –  tulip bulbs were even offered to fund dowries.

“Colleges” of traders who bought and sold bulbs developed, meeting in taverns to trade contracts.  This was referred to as “wind trade” because no bulbs physically changed hands.  Frequently contracts were purchased by buyers without the money to pay for them, but with the hope of selling them at even higher prices.  By 1636, some bulbs were changing ownership ten times a day for higher and higher prices.  Some people became rich overnight.

The bubble suddenly burst in 1637 when a group of traders gathered to conduct an auction and no one bid.  Tulip Fever was over. Some researchers claim that the aftermath led to a widespread economic downturn through the Netherlands for many years afterwards, but others claim these reports were exaggerated, although it no doubt led to the financial ruin of some.

Believe it or not, a second wave of Tulip Fever erupted in Turkey in 1718, but when a coveted bulb (‘Mahbud’) was offered for 500-1000 Ottoman gold coins, the government intervened and issued fixed prices to deter speculation.  It was an effective plan because by 1727 the most expensive bulb (‘Pomegranate Lance’) was offered for 7.5 Ottoman gold coins.

These two outbreaks of Tulip Fever are fascinating in that they reveal the extraordinary power of rare beauty to attract devotees who will often go to great heights to obtain this beauty.

Gardeners in McKinney will never be exposed to Tulip Fever because traditional tulips are not hardy in our area and so have little value.  If you are a tulip lover though, you do have options.  Species tulips are perennial and will naturalize (spread).  They are shorter, with thinner foliage and small, elongated bowls that open to resemble stars.  The best varieties are ‘Lady Jane’ and ‘Bakeri Lilac Wonder’.

‘Lady Jane’ species tulip:

‘Bakeri Wonder’ species tulip:

For more information about gardening, visit our McKinney Gardens page or check out Beth’s website

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