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The Tulip Trade

Today the Dutch think about tulips very differently from the way they viewed them during the height of tulipmania.

Unlike breeders during Tulipmania, commercial growers today dread the unexpected appearance of a flamed or feathered flower amid their vast fields. That's because it signals the possible presence of mosaic virus, a disease that weakens the infected flower and easily spreads to its neighbors. There’s little appreciation for the strikingly beautiful flowers that bankrupted some in the early 17th century. Now, cooler heads prevail and the commercial tulip world leaves the risky work of perpetuating broken tulips to others, content to focus production and research on the more predictable charms of healthy flowers and stable variations.

The growing and selling of tulips, whether as bulbs for fall planting or cut flowers, has become a highly organized and professional industry that generates more than $2 billion in exports for Holland. More than 75% of all bulbs traded worldwide are grown here in fields that are spread over more than 60,000 acres. Of the nearly 6,000 tulips known to exist, 2,600 are still grown commercially, guaranteeing gardeners and landscapers all over the world a wide variety of colors, shapes and bloom times. The biggest markets for Dutch flower bulbs are the United States, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom, with significant interest building in China and Russia.

The tulip brings money to the Netherlands in other ways, too. Each spring, thousands of tourists flock to the gardens at Keukenhof, the seemingly endless bulb fields of Noordoostpolder, or the older fields that stretch between The Hague and Haarlem. There are wonderful festivals and parades celebrating tulips in many Dutch towns. Tourists come in all seasons to see the art that tulips inspired during the golden age, when a masterful painting or drawing of a tulip cost far less than an actual flower. Tulips have become one of the iconic symbols of a nation that through hard work and agricultural innnovation built bulb industry from a single bulb.