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Where did tulips originate?

It's a friend's birthday today, and she loves tulips. What she doesn't love so much is when her cat tries to eat the tulip leaves from her birthday flowers! So this year instead of sending actual tulips, I have dedicated today's Daily Doodle to tulips in her honor (and also sent a card with a painted cat eating tulip leaves so it's not too much of a difference from years past).

Many people might think tulips originated in the Netherlands because of the massive tulip industry in Holland, but in fact tulips weren't brought the Netherlands until the 16th century. But let's go back a bit first to where they originated.

The Tulip originates from the high plains of Central Asia. Along the 40º N. latitude in a corridor stretching from Northern China likely all the way to Turkey. The first "tulip-mania" occurred way back in the 1500's in Turkey - which was the time of the Ottoman Empire and of Sultan Süleiman I (1494-1566). Tulips became highly cultivated blooms, developed for the pleasure of the Sultan and his entourage.

The Turks had strict laws governing the cultivation and sale of Tulips. During the reign of Sultan Ahmed III, it was forbidden to buy or sell tulips outside the capital - a crime punishable by exile. It was often commented that, during this time, the tulip was more highly valued than a human life.

After many wanderings, the Tulip arrived in the Netherlands in the 16th century. The man who played a major role in the Tulip’s history and the arrival of the Tulip in the Netherlands was Carolus Clusius, a Flemish scientist, medical doctor and botanist. From 1573 to 1577, he was employed by the Austrian Emperor’s court in Vienna as a botanist. He received Tulip bulbs from another Flemish scientist, named De Busbecq, who had become a friend. De Busbecq had worked for years at the court of the Ottoman Regime (now known as Turkey), when is was ruled by Süleiman the Great.

Süleiman was a fervent plant enthusiast, and through him De Busbecq became aware of the Tulip. At one point, Clusius left for Holland and took along some of the bulbs. In 1594, he became a professor at the University of Leiden and also the head of the Hortus Botanicus, which was founded in 1590. In the garden, he planted the bulbs he had taken along. He took great care of them, and did not want to share his knowledge with anyone. Further, he had no interest in selling the bulbs or his knowledge, preferring to keep them to himself. However, his efforts would eventually be in vain, as over the course of one evening thieves raided the garden, stealing most of the bulbs and subsequently starting the commercial Tulip trade in the Netherlands. A flourishing Tulip trade developed in the Netherlands thanks to an ideal growing climate and the business instincts of the Dutch.

Tulips were originally a natural curiosity and a hobby for the extremely rich. The fascination with the tulips, its endless mutations and mystery, gave it increasing value of immense proportions. Speculation on Tulip bulbs began building quickly as the middle and upper classes sought them as the ultimate symbol of wealth and prosperity. Along with avaries of exotic birds and large, decorative fountains, there would always be Tulips in the garden of any self respecting Emperor, King, Prince, Archbishop or member of the aristocracry. Until 1630 the bulbs were grown and traded only between connoisseurs and scholars but more commercially minded people soon noticed the ever increasing prices being paid for certain Tulips and thought they'd found the perfect "get rich quick" scheme.

And so the popularity of the Tulip increased and more and more people became caught up in the trade. It wasn't long before the majority of the Dutch community became obsessed with these flowers. Those who could not afford the bulbs settled instead for art, furniture, embroideries and ceramics which featured the flowers. Many of the gorgeous Tulip water colours painted during this period are now considered works of art but were, at the time, painted for catalogues with which to tempt buyers into ever more extravagant purchases. It was only ever the most expensive Tulips (ie those with 'broken' colour) which were painted.

From the period of 1634 to 1637 bulb prices sky rocketed as 'Tulip fever' spread like wild fire amongst the normally solid and sensible Dutch. Bulbs of one or two Guilders could be worth a hundred Guilders just a few months later and bulbs would change ownership several times before they even bloomed for the first time. The period of speculation became known as "Tulipomania" (officially 1636 - 1637) and the phenomenon was so intense that it still puzzles historians and economists until this day. Such was the absurdity of the period that, at the peak of Tulipomania, a single bulb could be sold for a price which could have purchased a house in the best parts of Amsterdam! (The equivalent of 15 year's wages for the average bricklayer).

The inevitable 'crash' of Tulip prices happened in 1637 when a group of sellers could not get the prices they wanted and people everywhere suddenly came to their senses. Everyone saw that the current Tulip prices were 'artificial' and their value as elusive as the wind! Many people lost everything they owned, however, for many others Tulipomania had done little to lessen the flower's beauty and grace and some of the rare varieties could still command huge prices. By the 1640's (when Tulipomania was considered to have passed) Semper Augustus, for example, could still fetch a price of 1,200 guilders (ie approximately 3 times the annual average wage).

During the Turkish reign of Ahmed III (1703-30) it is believed that the Tulip still reigned supreme as a symbol of wealth and prestige and the period later became known as 'Age of the Tulips'. It was during the early 1700's that the Turks began what was probably the first of the Tulip Festivals which was held at night during a full moon. Hundreds of exquisite vases were filled with the most breath-taking Tulips, crystal lanterns were used to cast an enchanting light over the gardens whilst aviaries were filled with canaries and nightingales that sang for the guests. All guests were required to wear colors which harmonised with the flowers!

Over the following decades, interest in the Tulip rose and fell but the Dutch maintained a commercial devotion to these flowers (today they export 1.2 billion bulbs annually). This is why the Tulip is now synonymous with the Dutch. It is the Dutch migrants, settling in new homes scattered around the world, who are largely responsible for further spreading the popularity of the Tulip today.

Do you have a favorite Tulip color? Perhaps the Tulip isn't your type of flower and you prefer something else?

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