The Black Tulip

The Black Tulip

Myth became reality in the story of the black tulip we know as “Paul Scherer.” For centuries, tulip lovers dreamed of such a flower. The myth of its existence inspired a novel by Alexander Dumas that had influenced generations Dutch children, and Dutch growers worked for years to create a black tulip.

They came close in 1891 with La Tulipe Noire, though that was merely dark purple, and again in 1955, with Queen of the Night, a deep, deep maroon. The blackest 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 varieties, hoping for just the right combination and a bit of luck, too. And then, like all tulip makers, he could do nothing but wait.

 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.

Thousands of tulips he’d started from seed seven years earlier were about to bloom for the first time. Each planted in its own pot, 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 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 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.’ Geert’s flower is widely available today, the blackest tulip on the market, a credit to the patience and persistence that leads to alchemy.

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