Review of ‘The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad’

The Tulip: The Story of the Flower That Has Made Men Mad
The Tulip: The Story of the Flower That Has Made Men Mad Amazon

The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad
Anna Pavord
Bloomsbury USA (St. Martin's Press)

"I suppose," says Anna Pavord, "there must be one or two people in the world who choose not to like tulips." There are more, however, who think of tulips as common and cliché — unsubtle masses of monochromatic color splashed across springtime flamboyantly as the braid on a hotel doorman's uniform. Give the flower a chance. Under Pavord's guidance, even jaundiced critics will come to appreciate this blossom, "a flower that has carried more political, social, economic, religious, intellectual and cultural baggage than any other on earth."

The mania for tulips — financial and aesthetic — that swept Holland in the 1630s is only a small part of this lavishly illustrated and wonderfully readable tale. Pavord, a garden writer who lives in Dorset, England, discusses tulips in the wild (progenitors of the domesticated tulip) and describes the whimsies of fashion that led new varieties to supplant older ones. She shows tulips in painting and sculpture, tells how the flowers were nurtured and displayed, and reveals how the Dutch — fine growers and even better salesmen — captured the modern market for tulip bulbs. It is a capacious, compelling story that you don't have to be a gardener to enjoy.

The tulip's ancestors came from somewhere in Turkey or Central Asia, where more than a hundred species grow wild. The flower was domesticated by the Ottomans, who planted vast numbers of bulbs in their palace gardens and were as fascinated by rare and exotic tulips as the Dutch at the height of tulip mania. The Turks, who favored tulips with long, narrow flowers and dagger-shaped petals, painted them on pottery and glazed tiles, embroidered them on textiles, and even had a special vase, the laledan, for displaying single blossoms.

Tulips entered Europe in the middle of the 16th century, a time when exotic products like turkeys, tobacco and tea also were introduced to that continent. Indeed, the first bulbs to arrive in Antwerp, in 1562, were so unfamiliar that the merchant who received them, regarding them as some exotic form of onion, "had them roasted over the embers of his fire and ate them with oil and vinegar." Within a few decades, these curiosities were growing in gardens all across Europe. "No woman of fashion stepped on to the street without a posy of rare tulips," the writer assures us, and each variation of the flower had its own special name. There were Agates and Jaspers, Parrots and Dukes. The color and shape of the flower's interior basal blotch were carefully evaluated, as were the shape of the petals, the mix of colors in the blossom, and the way in which those colors happened to be edged, striped or blended.

The flowers that truly made men mad were those that had "broken." Today, we know that broken tulips are infected by a virus spread by aphids, but before the 20th century the process was a mystery. One year a bulb would produce a normal flower, and the next year it would "break" into something completely different, with petals "feathered" and "flamed" in intricate patterns as unique and distinctive as fingerprints. This pattern would reappear each time that the bulb bloomed, and buds off the main bulb would retain the parent flower's elaborate design — but because the virus weakened the plant, broken tulips reproduced very slowly. Rare, distinctive and beautiful: it was indeed a recipe for speculation, and in the trading centers of the Netherlands a speculative bubble of legendary proportions would ensue.

The most ruinously expensive flower was "Semper Augustus," a red-and-white beauty with pointed petals and a bloom as graceful as a handblown goblet. In 1623, more than a decade before the mania collapsed, a bulb of this flower sold for 1,000 florins — more than six times the average annual income in Holland. And at the height of the speculation it sold for ten times that amount, enough to buy one of Amsterdam's finest homes.

The bulbs were sold by weight, and like carats of diamonds and troy ounces of gold, tulip bulbs were weighed in their own special units, called azen. A still life of flowers painted by one of Holland's finest painters was less expensive than a fine tulip, and even after prices collapsed, rare tulips remained luxury items that only the wealthy could afford.

The popularity of tulips rose and fell over the next 200 years. Hyacinths were more favored at times, and late-blooming tulips became more desired than early-blooming ones. Bybloemens (tulips with deep purple markings on a white ground) were favored by some growers, Bizarres (red or brownish black on yellow) or Roses (red or pink on white) by others. Still, every reader of Thackeray's 1837 novel Ravenswing knew what the author meant when he said one character was "a tulip among women, and the tulip fanciers all came flocking round."

Eventually, hobbyists wearied of debating the merits of tulips like "Daveyana" and "Miss Fanny Kemble." They grew tired of arguments about a bloom's most desirable shape. These squabbles, Pavord complains, reduced "the sublime, reckless, irrepressible, wayward, unpredictable, strange, subtle, generous, elegant English Florists' tulip to a geometrical equation." By 1885 the obsession with tulips had collapsed, and "the fabulous striped, feathered, and flamed flowers that had intrigued growers for centuries were cast aside."

Modern tulips, bright and cheerful, are extraordinarily popular. The Netherlands produces some three billion bulbs a year, in fields that cover, Pavord says, almost half the country. Selected for features like size, vigor and speed of growth, these flowers are the culmination of a 500-year history: no reader of Pavord will treat them dismissively again. But they also will long for a sight of those broken blossoms of the past, those beautiful flowers that drove men mad.

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