When Holland Went Wild

Three hundred sixty years ago, "tulipmania" gripped the Netherlands. The flowers, which had first been brought to Europe from Turkey in the 1500s, became incredibly popular - and some became very expensive. People traded houses, farm animals, even whole estates to acquire a particular bulb.

The most sought-after bulbs were ones that exhibited a phenomenon called "breaking." "Breaking" is when white feathery streaks appear in the petals. What made the plants unusual is that seeds from an all-red tulip might suddenly produce bulbs with white streaks. "Offsets" from the bulb would be streaked, too.

Today, scientists know that "breaking" results from a virus that affects the pigment in a tulip's petals but not the health of the plant. From 1634 to 1637, though, the flowers were seen as valuable freaks of nature.

A single such bulb once sold for 36 bags of corn, 72 bags of rice, 4 head of cattle, 12 sheep, 8 pigs, 2 pounds of cheese, a silver cup - and the list goes on. One buyer was famously cheated. He paid the equivalent of about $400 for what he believed was a unique bulb. Then he noticed evidence that two little offset bulbs had already been detached from it: The bulb had had babies.

The government finally stepped in to regulate the tulip-bulb trade.

Some tulipmania tulips are still grown today. One, a scarlet-and-white tulip named Semper augustus, once sold for the equivalent of $5,200! Another, Zomerschoon, has flowers colored salmon-rose on cream.

And today you don't have to be a rash millionaire to buy one.

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