WAGENINGEN, THE NETHERLANDS — PERHAPS no people in the world identify so closely with a flower as the Dutch do with the tulip.
The graceful flower stands like a glamorous bouffant hairdo on a tall, thin stem in most gardens, and even out of season, its wooden, silk, and plastic copies can be found in many Dutch homes. Then there are the stunning tulip fields concentrated around Haarlem, which throughout the spring create a riotous carpet of red and pink, yellow and white.
And those fields aren't just for show. Every year, the Netherlands exports nearly 2 billion tulip bulbs, some 280 million of them to the United States alone. Tens of millions of cut tulips make their way around the world. Together, bulbs and flowers make the tulip a billion-dollar-plus earner for the Dutch economy.
So it's hardly surprising that when the 400th anniversary of the tulip in the Netherlands rolled around this year, the Dutch would celebrate it in a big way: tours of historic tulip fields, exhibits on the tulip in Dutch history, concerts dedicated to the tulip. Some of the festivities end in May with the waning of the tulip season, but others go on through the year. Amsterdam, for example, will offer an unusual sight when 10,000 tulips, traditionally a harbinger of spring, are forced to bloom through a new ``icing'' method for an October exhibit on the use of tulip images in Dutch arts and crafts.
Still, one might ask why the tulip should have caught the imagination - and fired the passions, as during the period when a single tulip bulb cost as much as a prime Amsterdam house - of an entire country.
``We like our flowers, and we like them all around us,'' says Leo van Raamsdonk, a tulip specialist at the Center for Plant Breeding and Reproduction Research in this famed agriculture university town. The tulip, well-suited to Dutch growing conditions, makes possible an early, colorful spring in the cold-climate Netherlands.
Speculating further, Mr. Van Raamsdonk says, ``We are a trading nation, and a tulip bulb is something that even 500 years ago was easily stored and transported. Like the potato,'' he adds, ``you could pick it up and put it in your pocket.''
A native principally of Turkey and Asia Minor, the tulip was already the subject of admiring poems by the Persian Omar Khayyam in the 12th century. But as trade expanded, the tulip made its way west, its first known drawing in Western Europe occurring in 1557. In 1593, Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius planted a few bulbs of the ``tulp'' - named after the Turkish word for turban, tulbend - in the university gardens in Leiden. When they bloomed the following spring, something clicked.
``People went mad for the tulip,'' Van Raamsdonk says. The flower quickly developed into a status symbol, helped along by the fact that propagation difficulties kept tulip bulbs relatively rare. In addition, many bulbs were attacked by a virus that gave their flowers a flamed appearance, which meant the same bulb's flower changed dramatically from one year to the next. ``That mystery only added to the tulip's attraction,'' Van Raamsdonk adds.
Speculation to make a Wall Street golden boy swoon developed, and by the 1630s, wealthy Dutch were trading bulbs like fine jewels. Records from 1637 show that three bulbs fetched 30,000 guilders - enough at the time to buy three houses on Amsterdam's best canals.
But that same year, in a crash that economists still study, tulip prices collapsed. What the prudent had labeled ``air trade'' because it had no rational foundation was over, and great fortunes were lost. In 1640, Jan Brueghal the Younger captured the tulip's rise and fall in a painting showing monkeys weighing tulips against gold - and in one corner a monkey carrying worthless tulips off to the trash heap.
TODAY, a few dollars can buy a garden plot's worth of tulip bulbs, but the flower seems hardly less revered. Each member of the Dutch royal family has a tulip namesake - as does Hillary Rodham Clinton. The tulip adorns tourism promotional posters and is a privileged symbol for dairy and other products. And with the tulip playing such an important role in the Dutch economy, the spotlight the country places on it is not likely to dim soon.
Over the last century, tulip research focused on color, shape, and longevity - the 1960 ``Apeldoorn'' tulip announced the straight-bottom, strong-stemmed flower that is now a staple of the cut-flower trade - but today's emphasis is on ``green'' varieties that won't require heavy chemical use. Commercial growers are also interested in bulbs that can be stored for long periods, allowing them to cut the cost of annually planting and digging up millions of bulbs.
Even those Dutch who profess no fondness for the flower have to admit it's part of their life. ``I don't really like tulips, they're too stiff,'' says Maria Rotermundt, a Dutch Department of Agriculture employee. But she laughs as she looks down and realizes her skirt is a field of red, white, and yellow ... tulips.