The tulip began its life as a wildflower in the Pamir and Tien Shan ranges of Central Asia and the mountains of the Caucasus, which range from southern Russia to the high plains and peaks of Turkey and Iran. Species tulips first raised their pretty blooms only a few inches above the ground in a limited palette of brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges, spreading their seeds on the wind, their bulbs by slow division.
Few people traveled to these regions, but from time to time the bright little flower so enchanted passing traders and soldiers that they carried its seeds and bulbs to the courts of Persia and Turkey. In time, with the ever-expanding trade among nations, the tulip moved west, enchanting scholars and men and women of fashion in Germany, Austria, France, and England before consuming the present day Netherlands. There, the obsession with tulips reached its zenith in the early 17th Century in the craze now known as Tulipmania.
In modern times, the Netherlands is the place most associated with the tulip, which has become a national symbol, as characteristic as the windmill or a pair of wooden shoes, but it has enchanted and colonized many other nations in its journey.
Tulips, which remain the national symbol of Iran, were first cultivated in Persia sometime in the 10th century, where their presence in the gardens of Baghdad and Isfahan is noted in literature. By the 11thCentury the flower had become a motif in Omar Khayyam’s poetry, connecting the flower with ideals of feminine beauty and in Nizami’s 12thcentury romance, tulips spring from the blood of ill-fated lovers, Shirin and Farhad. The earliest surviving illustrations of tulips were discovered on tiles from the palace of Alāad-Dīn Kayqubād bin Kaykāvūs who reigned over Persia from 1220 to 1237.
Persians venerated and celebrated the beautiful little flower, calling it “lale” a word that shares its letters with the holy name of God. In 1250, the poet Mushariffu d-din Sa’di described his ideal garden as an earthly paradise composed of many elements, including “bright, multi colored tulips…”
Those tulips, whether they arrived as seeds or bulbs, were simple, low growing wildflowers of orange, yellow or red, loved in their simple, natural form.
The first tulips documented in northern Europe were described by botanist Conrad Gesner who saw them in Counselor Herwart’s garden in Augsburg, Bavaria in 1559. It’s unclear how the flowers reached Herwart, but there are records of tulip bulbs sent to northern Europe along with bales of cloth and other goods in the mid 16th century.
Leonhart Rauwolf, a physician who became a world-traveling plant scholar in the 1570s, collected striped yellow tulips along the way, and observed the depth of Turkey’s love for the flower. German tulip collectors had a particular passion for documenting their flowers and the early Dutch tulip trader, Emmanuel Sweerts,published Florilegium, a 1612 catalog of his extensive tulip offerings, in Frankfurt. Only a year later, the Bishop of Eichstatt commissioned a visual record of his garden, the Hortus Eystettensis, spending more than 3000 florins on lavish illustrations of flowers, many of them of tulips.
More than 20 years before Tulipmania took hold in Holland, the French were mad for tulips. Pierre Belon, a French explorer who collected many examples of the “Lils Rouge,” a gorgeous if scentless tulip he had first described during travels in Turkey. He noted the Turkish propensity for displaying single cut blossoms in vases and even as items of personal adornment, noting that many Turks wore a single cut flower in their turbans.
As French adoration of the flower burgeoned, a miller was said to have exchanged his mill, and thus his livelihood, for a single bulb, while a groom happily accepted a striking double red and white striped tulip later dubbed “Mariage de ma Fille” in lieu of any other dowry. Tulips were as expensive as fine jewels and noblewomen pinned them in their décolletage when dressing for court.
Charles de La Chesnée-Monstereul, studied tulips carefully, classifying them by bloom time, much as Carolus Clusius would in Holland, describing hundreds of varieties and noting the appealing mystery of breaking.
With time, a tulip breeding industry grew in France, led by nurserymen and florists. The flower moved from its prized place in a woman’s cleavage to strictly regimented beds in formal gardens where it stood in carefully designed ranks, the more spectacular broken tulips set to advantage among planer varieties. For a time French breeders dominated the tulip trade, but as the 18th century wore on, political upheaval and the growing importance of Dutch breeders eclipsed the French trade.