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. 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 should be noted that they didn’t originate there. They’re believed to have originated in the Tien Shan mountain ranges in Central Asia, already being cultivated by gardeners in the Ottoman Empire for decades. Tulips were rare and exotic plants and Western Europe soon became fascinated by them. They were officially introduced in the Netherlands at the end of the 16th century.
Although it’s not known exactly 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 who had seen the beautiful tulip flowers growing in the palace gardens of the Suleyman.
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At this 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, De Busbecq, 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 17th 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 in the flowers was huge, and bulbs were sold for unbelievably high prices. The tulips at Leiden would eventually lead to “Tulip Mania” in the Netherlands. Between 1596 and 1598, over a hundred bulbs were stolen from Carolus Clusius’ garden.
When we talk about tulpenmanie (Tulip Mania), we refer to the tulip craze that befell the Dutch in the 17th 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 that his garden was raided a few times.
Clusius studied tulips for a long time. He especially wanted to know why they had their unique 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 was hiked, and demand soared.
And just like that, tulpenmanie was born. Believe it or not, tulips even began to be used as a form of currency. In 1633, actual properties were sold for handfuls of bulbs. Even though Tulip Mania came to an abrupt end, 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 at 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.
Five fun facts about tulips in the Netherlands
1. 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.
2. Since 1986, the Netherlands sends flowers to St Peter’s Basilica every Easter. It’s a tradition that 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.
3. During the tulpenmanie in the 1600s, tulips were said to have cost ten times more than a working man’s average salary in the Netherlands, making them more valuable than many homes.
4. The Netherlands is the world’s largest commercial producer of tulips, with around three billion exported each year.
5. 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 the origin of these Dutch icons? Tell us in the comments!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in May 2018 and was fully updated in April 2023 for your reading pleasure.