4th November 2015: The Tale of the Tulip

Wye Historical Society's second lecture of the season on 4th November was given by Russell Bowes, a garden historian. Entitled 'The Tale of the Tulip' it provided a fascinating insight into the nature and history of this beautiful garden flower whose fortunes rose and fell spectacularly in 17th century Holland.

Introduced into Europe from Constantinople tulips had already bewitched the rulers of the Ottoman Empire. It was in Holland, however, that the passion for tulips found its most fertile ground. The tulip was different from every other flower known to Europe at that time, with a saturated intense petal colour that no other plant had. It quickly became a status symbol and the focus of conspicuous display among members of the new, wealthy merchant class, and a profusion of varieties followed. Many of these were multi-coloured (owing to a virus that affected the bulbs) and these flamboyant specimens, because they were rare and desirable, were expensive.

Trade in bulbs became increasingly frenzied but at first was confined to the two or three months of the year when the bulbs were dormant and could be uprooted and moved around. In 1635, however, the market turned when cash gave way to the use of promissory notes and trading became an all year affair. Prices leapt up on the basis of a slip of paper, and even the price of common, single-coloured bulbs began to increase, so that soon any tulip bulb could fetch hundreds of guilders. The rarer varieties could fetch thousands. A futures market for bulbs emerged, and tulip traders could be found conducting their business in hundreds of Dutch taverns where contracts to buy bulbs at the end of the season were bought and sold.

Tulip mania reached its peak during the winter of 1636-37, when some bulbs were changing hands ten times in a day. However, in February 1637, tulip bulb contract prices collapsed abruptly and the trade in tulips ground to a halt. The collapse began in Haarlem, when, for the first time, buyers apparently refused to show up at a routine bulb auction and pay. Panic spread as people realised they had traded their possessions and even homes for a piece of greenery. The market for tulips evaporated and bulbs became unsellable. From being a symbol of wealth and status, the once highly coveted tulip became a symbol of folly and greed, vanity, sharp practice and financial disaster.

Jenny Oram