Thursday, April 24, 2014

T is for Tulips

“Every house has a vase of cut flowers inside,” I said cycling past a row of homes beyond Amsterdam's city limits. 
“We like flowers,” my Dutch pal said over his shoulder.
“And outside every garden is growing flowers."
“We dig flowers.”
“Look at all the tulips!”
“We love tulips!”

I come from a family of flower people. My grandmother belonged to the local garden club and served as its president. My mother’s white iris garden was a fragrant oasis every June. My father created a rose garden with over 100 different varieties of roses including the House of York's white rose and the House of Lancaster's red rose. When dad wanted to usurp a bed of my mom’s irises to expand his rose collection, that’s when the real War of the Roses began. 

Needless to say, flowers and gardening are in my blood and I adore them. But growing up I recognized that my family’s affection for horticulture meant our yard was the only one on the block that had any blooming plants and flowers. The rest of the neighbors couldn’t be bothered.

That’s why it was refreshing to be in the Netherlands where no matter how small the garden or the house, every resident landscaped with blooming plants outside and displayed fresh cut flowers inside. Forget San Francisco's flower children. The Dutch are the original flower people because they appreciate all flowers, although they are complete suckers for tulips. 

Tulips belong to the Tulipa family and are distinguished by having a few large leaves from which a single flower stalk arises whose petals open in a cup-like form in a myriad of colors and patterns. Their original, wild growing region consists of a wide path from western China to Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Greece, Spain and Portugal. Notably they’re not from the Netherlands. So as much as tulips are the favored plant among the Dutch, they didn’t originate in the Netherlands but have been growing there since the 16th century when bulbs were imported from Turkey. Turkish tulips.

Grown from bulbs—not seeds—tulip bulbs are sunk into the earth in September to winter underground then in the spring, usually in April and May, they burst from the ground in a countless array of colored petals—red, yellow, white, purple, striped, striated. The flowers’ bright colors appealed to the Dutch immediately and soon certain colors became more favored, with the more rarely seen striped-petal tulips considered the most beautiful. This preference for certain tulip colors over others launched a Tulip Mania in the 17th century where people would buy and sell tulip bulbs claiming that there were one of the favored, striped patterns. Only months later after the tulip bloomed would the buyer realize if the seller had told the truth or not because that’s the thing with bulbs, they don’t have a label identifying what color the blooms will be. Pesky tulips. 

In order to use the bulb again the following year, every June the bulb is dug up to rest in a cool, dark place until it is replanted in September. Technically a seller could say, “These bulbs produced red and white striped tulip blooms this year, it will do the same thing next year.” This would allow him to sell the tulip bulbs at a higher price to the highest bidder. In a craze for the striped tulips, wealthy Dutch merchants and other buyers spent exorbitant sums of money for those bulbs, sometimes taking a second mortgage on their home to pay for the tulips. Let me repeat that: Dutch people borrowed money they didn’t have to pay for chic tulip bulbs they wanted in order to show off their wealth, which they used to have before buying the bulbs. Status symbol tulips.

Unbeknownst to the growers, buyers and sellers, a funny thing had happened to the tulips: the plants were contracting a Tulip Breaking Virus that caused the petal to have striped patterns (which was good) but that eventually killed the plant (which was bad). Even solid-colored tulip bulbs could become striped the following year before reverting back to a solid color the year after that or just dying. Sooner or later, every tulip infected with the Tulip Breaking Virus died. The virus and the unpredictability of the tulip colors sent the tulip market into chaos and ruined the fortunes of countless Dutch men, women and children. This was a real futures market meaning people bought something now to have it turn a profit in the future. The Dutch tulip mania closely resembled the real estate boom of the early 2000s and the painful crash of 2007. In a similar way, the tulip mania of the 17th century caused a rise then a horrible cash to the tulip market, personal fortunes and the national economy. Ah! Greedy tulip owners.

These days the Tulip Breaking Virus is understood and mostly eradicated. Which is a good thing because the Dutch grow tulips throughout their country, especially at Keukenhof, the largest growing grounds in the country where row after row of tulips are grown for the fresh-cut tulip market. If you admire tulips but have never visited this area, book a ticket soon to see the colorful floral displays at Keukenhof.

Or you can just cycle through the countryside and appreciate the personal gardens of Dutch homes. I guarantee they’ll have tulips. Bold, beautiful tulips!