Friday, July 30, 2010

Tulpenmanie, Redux

Gardeners are fickle sorts. Yes, fickle. Not to mention easily prone to seduction. 

We are tempted by pretty flowers, new "shinier" models. Knowing this, and understanding our mid-February desperation, seed, bulb, and garden companies distribute their catalogs--veritable garden pornography--and shamelessly play upon our promiscuity, certain that flashy colors, new variegations, and "deer resistant" varietals will seduce us. The story is as old as the Garden of Eden. Bright shiny apple? Sure, why not. It sure beats this pedestrian Bartlett pear. To hell with the wrath of God. I'll be dead anyway, and it won't be my problem.

And then came along the tulip.

Tulips first arrived in Europe from Turkey in the mid-sixteenth century and caused quite a stir, especially among the Dutch who, as I have observed, love their gardens. Being "exotic" imports, bulbs were naturally expensive, and only the aristocratic could afford them (or use them, as they had the leisure time to garden in the first place). By the first third of the seventeenth century, the Dutch provinces were under the spell of Tulpenmanie, a.k.a. tulip mania or the tulip craze. Tulip bulbs were the new gold, which, superfluous as it is, had replaced salt as the most valuable commodity. (At least tulip bulbs produce flowers; gold produces nothing, though perhaps jealousy.)

In any case, by late 1636, Tulpenmanie was in full swing. Bulb prices skyrocketed. Speculators bought bulbs at inflated prices, certain that they could sell the promise of spring blooms, especially the coveted red-yellow, purple-white, and red-white variegated flowers. Tulip bulb speculation, and tulip bulb short-selling was the 17th century version of the sub-prime mortgage. History does repeat itself.

At a certain point, potential buyers decide that a particular price exceeds the intended and perceived value of the good, and decline to purchase. That's exactly what happened in early 1637; the tulip market crashed. Those who bought bulbs on credit refused to pay their outstanding balances. Amassed wealth disappeared in days.

The culprits were few. Middle class folks who had found themselves with a little extra cash, a small plot of land along their houses, and a desire to beautify their surroundings, were assisted by eager nurseries which began to mass produce tulip bulbs from seeds; burgeoning supply forced prices downwards.

And then there was the hyacinth, that flashy little phallus that wooed so many Dutch. Ah, how fickle gardeners fickle that many (artisans and nobility alike) went bankrupt. An economy crashed. All while waging a war against the Spanish for their independence. At least that worked out.

Recently, I came to understand the psychology behind Tulpenmanie, having experienced the amorous introduction, the seduction, the titillation, the orgasm, and then the sense of deflation that comes afterwards--all in the span of an hour or so. Viet and I took an evening stroll (mind you, the sun did not set until nearly 10 p.m.) along Amsterdam's Herengracht and Singel canals and suddenly found ourselves at the (closed for the day) Bloemenmarkt. I could describe such a find in decidedly crude sexual terms, but I shan't. My dear reader will understand what I mean.

Guess where I was the next morning? After scouting out which sellers had US/Canada import quality tulip bulbs, I soon identified 5, 6, then 8, then 9, then 12 varietals to bring home. Oh, how lovely! Oh, how exotic! Look at this double petal varietal! And that saw-tooth petaled tulip! Oh, that one, and this one, and, and, and... I was in a tizzy, a downward spiral, the bank account emptying as I twirled and whirled and as new bags caught my eye. And then it hit me: I was crazy. My market crashed.

In the end, I decided upon 5 varietals, only 5, which, given that each bag contained 10 bulbs, was actually quite a lot for my garden. Perhaps too many. I only bought one flashy varietal: Corona (Tulipa Kaufmanniana), with butter yellow petals and fire red centers. I also bought Tulipa Triumph Deep Blue; Tulipa Triumph White; Queen of the Night (black); and Prinses Irene, with orange petals and deep red center (which, admittedly, I bought in honor of the Dutch football team).  

Surprisingly, Customs didn't even stop me upon re-entry, even though I did indicate on the required form that I was importing agricultural material. She probably took one look at me and thought, seeing that I had arrived from the Netherlands, "another homo, another bag of tulip bulbs, blah, blah" and thus waved me through. (Of course that's what she thought. After all, in November 2001 when flying from New York to Denver, security officials told me I could not carry my six 19th century Wedgwood dessert plates on the plane--of course they told me this AFTER I checked my luggage. "Why," I asked. "Because these can be broken and used as weapons." Gasping, I "clutched my pearls" and exclaimed, "Break Wedgwood?! I would never break Wedgwood." He looked at his supervisor, who rolled his eyes. He let me carry my Wedgwood dessert plates on board and back to the safety of my Denver home.)

Now the question remains: where the heck am I going to plant 50 bulbs?


  1. I love, love, love your blog....and I always learn something!

  2. I can relate. I'm very guilty of purchasing newer models of plants without considering where to put them. I suppose I'm one of those "impulse buyers" when it comes to plants!

  3. Ah, Judi, thanks for "confessing!" But isn't this one of the distinct joys of gardening?! Always happening upon new cultivars, varietals, and flashy new things, and either finding room in our beds or making room for the new arrivals by giving existing plants away. Thanks for reading!