The unknown history of the tulip

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 21, 2008

While reworking the flower boxes on my front porch recently, I made a discovery.

There at the bottom of one of the boxes was a marble sized tulip bulb. It was the remnants of the tulips I had grown last year, which I had removed for hibernation. I had intended on replanting them in the late fall, but completely forgot about them in a paper bag in a hall closet.

This one I had left to bear the elements and just one glance told me it had faired well as a small green sprig had grown from its papery skin.

That is the very thing I love about tulips; they’re robust enough to last through seemingly anything. They’re typically a popular springtime flower, with sturdy leaves and stems that can support a variety of colorful blooms from white to black to red to yellow.

Tulips were the first flower I remember blooming in my grandparents’ garden. My grandmother in her meticulous gardening ways mixed the bulb flowers with daffodils in a large round flower bed in the middle of her backyard.

As they bloomed, the bright colors drew me in, but as a child I knew I would get in trouble if I picked one.

I suppose the lure of the flower is somewhat in my blood as tulips are known for their connection to the Netherlands.

Originally indigenous to Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, a Dutch ambassador to Turkey took notice of the flower in the 16th century.

Though there is no set historical note as to how the flower was first introduced to Europe, once established there their popularity took hold.

One man, Charles de L’Ecluse, was responsible for the spread of the tulip and ultimately paid for it, as his own private gardens were raided and bulbs (some hundreds at a time) were stolen.

In the 1600s, “tulip mania” in the Netherlands was in full swing as demands for tulip bulbs grew as did the prices. At that time, one tulip bulb, then could have set you back as much as 1,000 Dutch florijns. I’m not sure as to what that equals today, but assuming anything that cost 1,000 florijns in the 17th century was pricey.

Soon the Dutch were trading and selling bulbs like stocks and bonds. The flower became a currency as well.

A few years later all “tulip dreams” were slashed as inflation fell and all Dutch lost interest.

During World War II, however, the tulip made a vital comeback as the Dutch depended on the edible bulb of the flower as food.

Under the German occupation of the country, they imprisoned Dutch Jews and Jewish sympathizers in concentration camps and rationed the food to the general public.

As a result thousands died from starvation, but the majority of the population was saved by growing tulips in their garden.

Today, the flower is still linked to the country as the Netherlands produce the majority of the tulips sold around the world.

And as for the small bulb I discovered, it’s beginning to come out of the ground.

Amanda VanDerBroek is a Staff Writer for the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. For comments and column suggestions email: or call (252) 332-7209.