Thursday, March 16, 2006

Of Tulips, Madness, and the Lord High Executioner

Review of: Tulipomania by Mike Dash, Three Rivers Press, 2001.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of Victorian moralists espoused gardening as a wholesome activity, good for both body and soul. Gardening should, they said, teach patience, perseverence, a love of work, an aesthetic sense, and a hundred other virtues. "Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I can walk undisturbed," said Walt Whitman. Kipling extended the garden metaphor to the building of nations when he said, "Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made / By singing: -"Oh, how beautiful!" and sitting in the shade."

Yet the story of the humble, chaste-looking tulip is a story filled with blood and greed, hardly Victiorian ideals. Mike Dash's tale begins in the harsh, mountainous regions of the Middle East, where small wild tulips dot the high slopes, splashes of late-winter brilliance in an otherwise unforgivably harsh world. Nomadic people of the region loved the flower, particularly the red varieties, as a symbol of hope, spring fertility, and a soldier's courage, as the star-shaped wild tulip was clothed in the scarlet of a warrior's jacket.

The tulip spread westward with these people as they conquered new lands. The tulip took on new meaning as a symbol of service to God, for the taller varieties hung their flowers in a most humble posture. As the Ottoman empire rose, and at a time when the Islamic custom of refraining from realistic portrayal of objects of nature was lifted, tulips were a favorite motif in deocoration, appearing on embroidered garments, tiles, in paintings, and more. Topkapi, the famous palace in Contstantinople, featured pleasure gardens for the eyes of the sultan alone if he so chose, and one of the most beloved flowers in the garden was the tulip. At that time, the favored form had an almond-shaped blossom and long, needle-like points at the tips of the petals that were as long as the blossom or more.

But all was not peace and tranquility in the sultan's gardens of pleasure. When a few cucumbers went missing from one of his vines, suspecting that one of the gardeners had eaten them, the sultan had the accused gardeners disembowled one at a time in his presence and their innards searched for tell-tale cucumber seeds. The head gardener himself, in a weird twist on later Victorian views of gardening virtue, doubled as the chief executioner. A man might escape the sentence of death if he could beat the gardener in a race to the city gates. But more often than not, the gardener was there waiting for him, sword in hand. Life was cheap in the Ottoman empire.

Some time in the 16th century -- records vary on just when -- Europeans viewed tulips in Constantinople, and brought some home. This is where the Dutch enter the story. Few people beyond a handful of explorers had ever seen a tulip, and the first Flemish merchant who received a gift of a few dozen bulbs with a shipment of carpets from the East mistook them for a variety of Turkish onions and ate them. He reported them delicious, though mildly bitter, and planted a few of the remaining bulbs in his garden. Only then did he discover that the bulbs produced beautiful flowers.

The flowers were popularized by botanist Carolus Clusius, who freely gave away bulbs of various wild tulips and cultivars that appeared in his gardens. He might have grown rich himself in the later craze, but preferred giving bulbs only to friends that he knew would appreciate the flowers for their beauty, not only for their monetary value. He had offers, of course, from his neighbors, grown wealthy following the new independence of the Netherlands. Many of his would-be customers, frustrated at Clusius' refusal to sell, took matters into their own hands and stole plants from his garden, and so the tulip spread across Holland and the rest of the Netherlands.

As tulips were cultivated in pocket-sized Dutch gardens, bringing species closer together than they were found in nature, hybrids and cultivars appeared in abundance. Among them were the famous "broken" tulips, those with white or yellow petals streaked with red, purple, or bronze. Those with the most delicate "breaking" grew to be the most highly valued, and gardeners, working in the days before even the rudiments of polliation were known, tried all sorts of nostrums to make their tulips "break." Only much later in the 20th century would it be shown that "broken" tulips were infected with a virus, hence the total unpredictability of the color patterns.

Holland and the rest of the Netherlands went mad for tulips, and the madness continued from 1637-1639. The very first true futures market opened with the sale of tulip bulbs, some of them changing hands for six times a carpenter's wages -- an astonishing sum for those of us who are miffed if we have to pay more than a dollar a bulb for tulips. Though tulipomania began among the wealthy, it soon spread to ordinary folks who staked their entire estates on a single bulb. A group of destitute orphans grew rich when they sold their fathers' tulip collections, while wealthy merchants lost everything in the topsy-turvy turbulence of tulipomania. Dash's Tulipomania tells the full tale of human folly and herd instinct when the markets are rising, a lesson one might think we'd have learned by now -- but as the recent dot-com internet bubble shows, is still a part of human nature.

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