The Black Tulip
For centuries, tulip lovers dreamed of an inky black flower.
The myth of a black tulip inspired the 1850 novel by Alexander Dumas, a story that influenced generations. It is a powerful tale about love, jealousy, and obsession. In the story, a magnificent prize is offered to the first man or woman to produce a pure black tulip. Dutch growers worked for years to create a black tulip cultivar in real life.
A few tulip breeders came close. In 1891, well-known grower name E. H. Krelage declared victory in creating the fictional flower, going so far as to name his new breed La Tulipe Noire after Dumas' book. Although no one can doubt the marketing genius of tying his new breed to the story, those who saw it noted that its color was dark purple, not black.
About half a century later, breeder JJ Grullemans introduced the extremely popular Queen of Night in 1944. In 1955, Black Beauty was introduced by M. van Waveren. All were undoubtedly dark, but they were also undoubtedly deep shades of purple. So the quest continued, with many breeders enthralled.
The darkest tulip now in existence bloomed for the first time thirty years later on a cold winter night in a greenhouse in the tiny village of Oude Niedorp, where residents still went about in wooden shoes.
A 29 year-old horticulturist Geert Hageman had been obsessed with creating a truly black tulip from the time he first read Dumas’s novel as a boy. In 1979 as a young hybridizer funded by a consortium of growers, he crossed a handful of promising dark purple varieties, hoping for just the right combination and a bit of luck, too. Then all he could do was wait, like all tulip makers.
Just after midnight on February 18, 1986, Geert decided to check his greenhouse one last time before going home. It was well below freezing outside, but a pleasant, 68 degrees Fahrenheit inside.
He’d planted thousands of tulip seeds seven years earlier, and now these plants were about to bloom for the first time. Each one was planted in its own pot, and sported a green bud, just beginning to show color. As he scanned the greenhouse, a small dark flower caught his eye. Was this the black tulip he had hoped and worked for?
Geert had no one with whom to share his excitement that night. His wife was sleeping soundly; his colleagues had all gone home. Instead he wandered among the plants, quietly drinking a celebratory beer. Though he later told the Chicago Tribune he had expected to find such a flower, its appearance was a near miracle. Among his myriad plants, only one, just one, produced that black flower.
The next day, he took his single tulip to the West Frisian Flora show at Bovenkarspel where flower and its hybridizer created quite a stir. Suddenly, Geert was a celebrity, interviewed on television and by many international news organizations. When the furor subsided, Geert returned to his patient growing operation. It took 11 more years to build sufficient bulb stock to bring the new tulip to market. In that time, Geert toyed considered many names, Winnie Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. among them, but in the end, Geert settled on “Paul Scherer.” (Turns out Paul Scherer was a mayor of a city Germany that had introduced Carnaval and the Carnaval society wanted to honor him with his own tulip.) Geert’s flower is available today, the blackest tulip on the market, a credit to the patience and persistence that leads to alchemy.
But Is it a True Black Tulip?
Both yes and no. Paul Scherer tulips are darker than any that came before, and are widely considered to be the darkest breed of tulips today. However, the breed still maintains a distinctly purple hue, and so is not, still, truly black.