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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 named 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 J.J. 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.

Geert Hageman

The darkest tulip now in existence bloomed for the first time 30 years later. On a cold winter night, the tulips was found in a greenhouse in the tiny village of Oude Niedorp, where residents still wore traditional wooden shoes.

A consortium of growers provided funding to 29-year-old horticulturist Geert Hageman for a tulip hybridization project. Hageman had been obsessed with creating a truly black tulip from the time he first read Dumas’s novel as a boy. In 1979, he crossed a handful of promising dark purple varieties, hoping for just the right combination and a bit of luck. Then all he could do was wait, like all tulip makers.

Just after midnight on February 18, 1986, Hageman 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?

Hageman had no one to share his excitement with 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, just one produced that black flower.

The next day, he took his single tulip to the West Frisian Flora show at Bovenkarspel, where both the flower and its hybridizer created quite a stir. Suddenly, Hageman was a celebrity, interviewed on television and by many international news organizations. When the furor subsided, Hageman 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, Hageman settled on “Paul Scherer.” Paul Scherer was a mayor of the city in Germany that had introduced Carnaval, and the Carnaval society wanted to honor him with his own tulip.

Hageman's flower is still 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.