Tiptoe Through The Travails And Travels of Tulips

A bulb that shaped and colored history

In the Paris Farmer's Union here in Maine, boxes of spring-flowering bulbs from Holland, have sprung up alongside the winter wheat, clover, trefoil, and other seeds of fall. Even farmers with next year's corn and pumpkin crops on their minds pick over the bulb boxes at this time of year. They see few other investments yielding such rich rewards in color, grace, and beauty.

The scene is repeated throughout much of the country and, indeed in cities and towns throughout the temperate world - such is the popularity of spring-flowering bulbs.

It's been that way ever since the Dutch, awed by the first specimens to come their way from Turkey, made growing them an obsession and trading them a passion.

Today, if planted 4 inches apart, the 3 billion tulip bulbs the Dutch produce each year would circle the globe seven times. By the time fall is over, Americans alone will have planted an estimated 313 million tulips - up by more than 30 million from a few years ago.

This appreciation for Dutch bulbs goes back to the days when New York was New Amsterdam. Records show that both Presidents Washington and Jefferson grew tulips in their gardens.

But in those early days they were either ordered by mail from Holland or came in small quantities from English suppliers who were major importers of Dutch-grown tulips from the very beginning. That beginning, however, had a somewhat rocky start.

What began four centuries ago with the arrival in Holland of an Austrian botanist and his collection of bulbs soon resulted in frenzied trading.

Within decades, a handful of tulip bulbs sold for a fortune. Consider this 1636 sale in which one trader swopped 1,000 pounds of cheese, for just one tulip bulb! He even threw in a silver plate, suit of clothes, and a bed to sweeten the deal. At today's supermarket prices, the cheese alone costs $4,000. Compare that with the average 40 cents price of a tulip bulb on today's market.

Packed up his bulbs

In the past period known as "tulipmania," fortunes were made overnight and lost when the absurdity of the situation finally hit the Dutchmen in their wallets. Fortunately, though, the bulb trade itself did not collapse, and generations of Dutch growers and breeders have seen it expand to become a worldwide phenomenon. In some ways, though, it was the marauding Turks who started the whole thing.

Tulips were first cultivated in Turkey more than 1,000 years ago. Later, during the Turks' periodic military thrusts into Austria, the tulip made its way to Vienna. There Carolus Clusius, the foremost botanist of his day, fell into disfavor with the emperor in 1593 and left in haste for Holland - but not before packing his considerable collection of tulip bulbs along with his toothbrush.

At the time, these Turkish bulbs were totally new to Western Europe and the Dutch were fascinated. Sensing the possibilities, they invited him to set up a botanical garden at the University of Leiden.

Apparently, while the Dutch political climate was hospitable to Clusius, the physical climate itself was nothing short of ideal for his bulbs.

US is the leading importer

Tulips thrive in the Netherlands, better even than in their native Central Asia, and reproduce as nowhere else in the world which is the significant point. Where tulips will flower virtually anywhere, they do not readily regenerate large replacement bulbs outside of Holland itself. The Dutch, in other words, had a product that couldn't be reproduced on a massive scale anywhere else and they were quick to seize the opportunity.

Bulb growers, busy in their fields all summer long, soon realized that winter was the time to travel abroad and sell - first in neighboring countries, notably Germany, Britain, and Russia but later much further afield.

A Mr. Van der Schoot was the first man to make a business of importing bulbs to the States, back in 1887.

Other growers, recognizing a smart marketing move when they saw one, quickly followed suit. Today the major producers all have permanent representatives on this side of the Atlantic, a major reason the United States is now the leading importer of Dutch bulbs. This year the US imported more than a billion of them.

Meanwhile, gardeners here come and go from the Farmers Union display boxes, buying anywhere from a handful to scores at a time, each contributing to that US total. Elizabeth Dickerson of the nearby town of Greenwood is among them.

She has concentrated on tulips this year, selecting a few of several varieties, including long-popular Appledoorn. They will go into that part of the garden where snow thunders off the roof in an avalanche each March. There it slowly melts to reveal pale green leaves pushing through the soil. A few weeks later and the whole bed is a riot of gorgeous color. "It's a stunning transformation," she says.

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