When you think of the Netherlands, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Well, apart from the coffeeshops and the red light district. Yeah, tulips in the Netherlands, right? You got it!
Every tulip season in the Netherlands, lots of tourists flock into the country to visit Keukenhof Flower Gardens and be mesmerised by the array of flowers, bulbs and tulips on display.
The tulip is pretty much the symbol of the Netherlands but one question people never really ask is: “How did tulips become a thing in the Netherlands?”
Before we look into the history of the Dutch relationship with tulips, let us find out what tulips are.
What are Tulips?
The tulip is a bulbous spring-flowering plant of the lily family. I promise you won’t be wrong if you claimed that the tulip and the onion are related. Tulip flowers are usually boldly coloured, cup-shaped and incredibly symmetrical. The name “tulip” is thought to be derived from a Persian word for turban, which the flower kind of resembles.
How did tulips come to the Netherlands?
While tulips may be very popular in the Netherlands, it must be noted that they didn’t originate in these parts. They are believed to have originated in the Tien Shan mountain ranges in Central Asia and had already been cultivated by gardeners in the Ottoman Empire for decades. Tulips were rare and exotic plants and Western Europe soon became fascinated with them as soon as they were brought in. They were officially introduced in the Netherlands at the end of the sixteenth century.
Although it is unknown who first brought the tulip to Northwestern Europe, the most widely accepted story is that it was Oghier Ghislain de Busbecq, who was Emperor Ferdinand I’s ambassador to Suleyman the Magnificent.
This was the same time a Flemish botanist by the name of Carolus Clusius was made the director of the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden. He was hired by the University of Leiden to research medicinal plants. During his time there, his friend, Ogier Ghiselain de Busbecq, who had seen the beautiful tulip flowers growing in the palace gardens of Suleyman the Magnificent, decided to send him a few for his garden in Leiden. This was the start of the bulb fields in the Netherlands.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, everyone had become so besotted with tulips that people started using them as garden decoration. They soon became a major trading product in Holland and other parts of Europe.
The interest for the flowers was huge and bulbs were sold for unbelievably high prices. The tulips at Leiden would eventually lead to both the “Tulip Mania” and the growth of the tulip industry in the Netherlands. Between 1596 and 1598, over a hundred bulbs were stolen from Carolus Clusius’ garden.
When we talk about Tulip Mania, we refer to the tulip craze that befell the Dutch in the seventeenth century. We know that Carolus Clusius was responsible for the popularity of the tulip in the Netherlands. The tulips in his gardens were so rare and difficult to find that his garden was raided a few times.
Clusius studied tulips for a long time. He particularly wanted to know why they had colourings, but he and his fellow scholars had no way of knowing that the colourings were actually caused by a virus. At first, people were content with exchanging seeds and bulbs, but when it became obvious that tulip bulbs (especially the ones affected by the virus) were more popular, the price hiked and demand soared.
And just like that, Tulip Mania was born. Believe it or not, tulips even began to be used as a form of money. In 1633, actual properties were sold for handfuls of bulbs and even though Tulip Mania came to an abrupt end, the extraordinary thing is that the collapse of the market didn’t diminish the Dutch appetite for tulips. As for the coloured ones, the virus was later discovered in 1931 and turned out to be transferred by aphids. These days, multicoloured tulips are artificially bred to look that way.
Here’s how to see the tulips for free
Tulips in the Netherlands — present day
Tulips are still very popular in the Netherlands and are even celebrated in festivals. Keukenhof remains the Netherlands’ most popular tulip destination, as millions come every spring to marvel at the gardens in Lisse. There is also the Amsterdam Tulip Festival which takes place every year. The festival celebrates the famous flower and ensures it blooms all over the city. All throughout the first half of April, more than 850,000 colourful (and rare) tulips can be seen in the gardens of museums, private homes and other parts of Amsterdam.
Some fun facts about tulips in the Netherlands
1. The striped tulips, which were very popular in the 17th century, got their colouring from a virus. This virus which was discovered in 1931 was found to be transferred by aphids. Nowadays, multi-coloured tulips are artificially bred to look that way.
2. In 1943, Dutch Princess Margriet was born in Canada’s Ottawa Civic Hospital, as the royal family fled the Netherlands to escape the war in Europe. The maternity ward where she was born had to be declared an international territory so she could inherit her Dutch citizenship from her mother, Princess Juliana. Each year as a sign of gratitude, the Dutch royal family sends 10,000 bulbs to Ottawa for the tulip festival.
3. Since 1986, the Netherlands sends flowers to St Peter’s Basilica every Easter. It is a tradition which started following Pope John Paul II’s visit to the country in 1985, and since then, the Vatican decided to let the Netherlands be in charge of the Easter floral display.
4. In the 1600s during the tulip mania, tulips were said to have cost 10 times more than a working man’s average salary in the Netherlands, making them more valuable than many homes.
5. The Netherlands is the world’s largest commercial producer of tulips, with around three billion exported each year.
6. Tulip petals are edible! During the Dutch famine of 1944 in WWII, people often had to resort to eating sugar beets and tulips.
So, there you have it. All there is to know about tulips in the Netherlands. Did you know this? Let us know in the comments!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in May 2018 and was fully updated in January 2021 for your reading pleasure.
Feature image: kareni /Pixabay