History of the Tulip: From Turkish Love Affair to Dutch Tulipmania Obsession

First cultivated in Turkey, the tulip traveled from east to west, triggering the Tulipmania, the world's first economic bubble and almost ruining The Netherlands, crashing the tulip market in 1637; yet, it remains one of the most beloved flowers.
Susan Fourtané
Rare original hand-colored copper engraving from the book Theatrum Florae circa 1630.Daniel Rabel

The history of the tulip takes us on a journey that goes from Central Asia to Turkey to The Netherlands. How did this precious flower go from being a Turkish love affair to a Dutch obsession that triggered the Tulipmania, the world’s first speculative economic bubble in 1637?  

Turkey and The Netherlands are two distinctively different countries in every imaginable way. Yet, they have something in common: The tulip. From being a pretty wild flower in the east to becoming an exotic, priceless, extravagant flower in the west, the tulip has fascinated nations for centuries up to the present day.

Every spring, tulips bloom from March to April, bringing a palette of radiant colors and a feeling of joy after the long dark winter. If the weather is nice and cool, tulips may last for a week or two in full bloom. Tulips enjoy a short but celebrated life before becoming dormant again.  

Once upon a time, the tulip 

History of the Tulip: From Turkish Love Affair to Dutch Tulipmania Obsession
Here, these are for you! Pink tulips are a symbol of caring and good wishes, Source: RossHelen/iStock 

Tulips, in general, are symbols of perfect love. Different colors also carry different meanings, like many other flowers do. Red tulips are associated with true love, purple symbolizes royalty; yellow tulips once represented hopeless love but most recently, they have been associated with joy, cheerful thoughts, and sunshine. White tulips are usually used to represent purity and respect, or to express forgiveness. Pink tulips are a symbol of caring and good wishes. 

The mysterious and elegant shade of black tulips depicts royalty, they symbolize power and strength. Black tulips, indeed, are a rare hybrid of tulips; absolute black tulips are very difficult to achieve. However, there is a great variety of mixtures of purple, dark wine red, or velvet maroon that can be seen as the closest to pure black. 

The tulip is one of the most beloved flowers. As such, perhaps one day it joins other flowers grown in space. Tulips are used to celebrate many occasions as well as embellishing any garden or indoor flower-pot. Europeans gave the tulip its name. However, the botanical name for tulip, tulipa, comes from the Turkish word tülbent, which comes from the Persian dulband, meaning turban. The tulip got its name from the resemblance of its petals to the overlapping folds of cloth in a turban. So, the word tulip, pretty much like the flower itself, has Turkish origins.

The word tulip entered the English language in the 16th century, as it did the word turban, which arrived in the language as a borrowing of Middle French turbantTulip appeared in forms as tulipa and tulipant in early English, which come to the English language by means of French tulipe and its obsolete form tulipan.

The words tulip and turban are called doublets, meaning they are words in a given language that go back to the same etymological source, yet they look different because they arrived at their present state by different routes. 

Centuries ago, the origin of the tulip began in Persia, then in Turkey, where it played a significant role in the art and culture. The tulip was originally cultivated in the Ottoman Empire (today, Turkey). In the 16th century, tulips were brought to the province of Holland (in The Netherlands) for the first time. In 1592, Carolus Clusius, which was the Latinized name of Charles de l'Eclusea French pioneering botanist, wrote the first major book on tulips, and of course, not only for his research but also for his personal delight, he had a magnificent tulip garden.

By then, tulips had become so popular that Carolus Clusius' garden was raided, and tulip bulbs were stolen on a regular basis. Today, the tulip is an important element of The Netherlands' national identity. The history of this precious flower is as fascinating as it can get. Even though today, Dutch tulip bulbs are exported all over the world, many cultivated varieties were first widely grown in Turkey long before tulips were introduced to Europe. 

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The sailor who ate a tulip 


tulip bulbs
Tulip bulbs, Source: Libortom/iStock

Perhaps, one of the most well known and funny popular stories about the tulip is the one that tells about the sailor who ate a tulip by mistake. A funny story for us today; yet, a tragedy for its protagonist back in the day. 

In the 1630s, a Dutch sailor mistook a rare tulip bulb for an onion. Yes, they look alike, indeed. However, without having eaten a tulip in my life, I would imagine they taste quite differently. A similarity in shape and color, though, was enough for a sailor who cheerfully ate a tulip bulb with his herring sandwich. 

Before he could understand what he had done, the sailor was charged with a felony and sent to prison. He paid a high price for his mistake. Little did he know what he mistakenly took for an onion was a Semper Augustus, an incredibly rare tulip bulb priced at around 1,000 guilders. To put it into perspective, its price was enough to feed an entire crew for a year.  

A similar story is found linked to French botanist Carolus Clusius. In the 1583 edition, Clusius relates that an Antwerp merchant sometime earlier had received a consignment of cloth that unexpectedly included tulip bulbs. Apparently, these bulbs were mistaken for onions, some of which the clothier supposedly ate, discarding the rest in his garden. (Although the year 1562 has been suggested, Clusius himself gives no date.)

According to Carolus Clusius' masterpiece Rariorum Plantarum Historia (1601), he observed that weakened tulips break in color, although he never was able to determine the cause. These were the Semper Augustus. 

Semper Augustus tulip
Semper Augustus Tulip, photo taken outside Shrewsbury Library. Shrewsbury Shropshire, U.K., Source: dand1977/iStock

Pretty much like every single chapter of what we read in history books, the particular story of the sailor who ate such a valuable tulip bulb has been doubted by some. One of the main arguments questions who in their right mind would leave something incredibly rare and valuable at the sight of a hungry seaman. 

Despite the unquestionable logic behind that assumption, the truth is, we will never know with certainty what really did happen, or if it happened at all. However, there is a good chance that the tulip-eating incident did actually happen. In time, some further in situ research could shed some light upon the matter.

For the time being, I would say that back in time, the story of the sailor who was thrown into prison for eating a tulip bulb must have served as a clear and efficient warning to others. Either fact or fiction, the story of the sailor who ate a tulip bulb kept people away from feeding on the precious bulbs. In spite of tulip bulbs being similar-looking to onions, they should not be considered food. However, tulip petals are edible. 

The tulip in Turkey 

tulips in turkey
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), Istanbul, Turkey. Palm tree and yellow tulips in spring, Source: Elen11/iStock 

Turkey had a love affair with Tulips that lasted for over 400 years. At the end, Turkey brought tulips to the west. 

The early Turks, or Seljuks, lived in tribes as nomadic warriors and traders. The early Turks emerged in Central Asia in the 9th century. They conquered most of Anatolia and Northern Persia by the late 11th century and ruled the lands until the mid-13th century. It was in Persia where the tulips were growing as wild flowers. 

There is no written record about tulips before the 11th century’s poem of Omar Khayyam. No illustrations of tulips were found until one was found on a tile from the palace of Sultan Alāad-Dīn Kayqubād bin Kaykāvūs; the Sultan reigned over Persia from 1220 to 1237. He was born in 1188 and died in 1237 in Turkey.

Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was the first to cultivate the tulip. He adored tulips and his clothes were heavily embroided with them. Noblemen frequently decorated their turbans or tulipans with a single tulip. It is from this practice, observed by European travelers and diplomats, that the lâle (lale in modern Turkish), became the word for a tulip. 

The period between 1718 to 1730 is called the Tulip Era (Lâle Devri, in Turkish). This period was under the reign of Sultan Ahmed III of Turkey. During the Tulip Era, Turkey experienced its own form of Tulipmania. Tulips began to change hands among the wealthy in Istanbul at increasingly exorbitant prices.

Sultan Ahmet III loved tulips as deeply as any Dutchman ever had. He supplemented the flowers bred on high mountains for his Istanbul Gardens with the best that could be found from the province of Holland’s commercial growers. Over the course of his reign, Sultan Ahmet III imported millions of Dutch tulip bulbs at enormous cost.  

Sultan Ahmet III was also known as the Tulip King because he organized tulip parties every night during the tulip season and for as long as the tulips bloomed, with thousands of tulips on display and guests wearing matching colors. Large tortoises carrying candle holders illuminated the tulip gardens.  

This happy period in the Ottoman Empire is remembered as a time of peace and enjoyment. Back then, tulips became an important part of life and were depicted in the arts, folklore, poetry, music, and daily life. The classic Turkish tulip motif has elongated, slender petals. They are found over walls on tiles, across silk textiles, steel armour, Turkish coffee sets, and they are depicted standing erect on the lovely Turkish carpets.

Turkish tile with tulip motif
Turkish tile with tulip motif, Source: enesaltin/iStock
Turkish coffee set with tulip motif
Turkish coffee set with tulip motif, Source: ZeynerpOzy/iStock

Today, an abstract form of the tulip in the fuselage of all Turkish Airlines airplanes reminds of the old high mountain beds where tulip bulbs once bloomed across the Ottoman Empire. The tulip is also present in modern Turkish ceramics, literature, and textiles. 

Istanbul Tulip Festival 

The Istanbul Tulip Festival runs every spring between the three last weeks in April and the first week in May. During the season, Istanbul residents and visitors alike can enjoy the view of millions of planted tulips citywide. The colorful flowers can be found throughout parks and public spaces. 

During the Tulip Festival, tulips are in full bloom, inviting visitors to wander. Annually, the park authorities in Istanbul put on performances, concerts, and exhibitions that add a lively atmosphere to the botanical experience. 

The tulip in The Netherlands 

tulips in Amsterdam
Tulips by a canal in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Source: AndrijTer/iStock

The Kingdom of the Netherlands (Holland refers to just the two provinces of North Holland and South Holland out of the 12 total provinces that make up The Netherlands) has affectionately been called the flower shop of the world. Tulips are cultivated in large fields across the European nation resulting in an explosion of beautiful and bright colors in the spring. 

The Dutch —or Nederlanders, as they call themselves— took their love for tulips abroad when they crossed the ocean and settled in New York, originally New Amsterdam, and Michigan, where the connection to Dutch roots is very strong. 

traditional clogs with tulip design
Traditional Dutch clogs with tulip flowers at Volendam, The Netherlands, Source: kjschraa/iStock

The first tulips were brought to The Netherlands from Turkey in the 16th century. Since then, and up to the present day, the tulip has been a popular theme in paintings, ceramics, festivals, traditional Dutch clogs, and the landscape across the nation. During the Dutch Golden Age, The Netherlands was known as The Dutch Republic. 

The Dutch Golden Age and the Tulipmania

The Dutch Golden Age took place in the 17th century. This was a period of great wealth for The Dutch Republic, a period that lasted for about one hundred years. Cities which were members of the East India Company (VOC) were among the richest in the country. 

The riches of these cities are still visible in many mansions, canals, churches, city walls, and harbors. Art and science blossomed in the same way tulips did. This can be clearly seen in the paintings of some of the famous Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Steen. This was also the period of the rise and fall of the Tulip Mania (or Tulipmania). 

Usually, tulip bulbs were sold by weight while they were still in the ground. Some could be extremely expensive and cost more than a house. The tulip was all about access and demand, and even though the Dutch government tried to outlaw the commerce of tulips, it was not successful. During this time, many dealers went bankrupt and people lost their savings when the tulip market finally crashed.

But the history of the tulip speculation was more complicated than that. The tulipmania not only affected the economy but also had a strong social influence, and the tulip trade involved a great deal of trust and ethics. 

Tulipmania: First economic bubble, and other crazy speculation

In the 1630s, the Dutch Republic, and in particular the province of Holland (from old English Woodland) in the north of the country, was approaching the climax of an economic boom which had brought unprecedented demographic and social changes over the previous half-century; this was on top of the political and religious upheavals of the Revolt in the late 16th century. 

By the mid-seventeenth century, tulips were so incredibly popular that they created what was called the Tulip Mania (tulpenmanie, in Dutch). It was, indeed, the world’s first economic bubble, one which reached a peak in February 1637. As people kept on buying tulip bulbs, the flower bulbs suddenly became so remarkably expensive that they were used instead of money until the market in them finally crashed.

Dr. J. Leslie Price, in his well detailed review of Tulipmania: Money, Honour, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age by Professor Anne Goldgar, wrote: 

“The feverish speculation in tulip bulbs which reached a peak in February 1637, together with the crash that followed, is one of the more notorious episodes in 17th-century Dutch history. It has taken its place, along with the South Sea Bubble in Britain in the early 18th century, as an example of the irrational behaviour that could overcome investors in early modern Europe - and, indeed, in later periods as well. According to the standard version, the boom and collapse of the market for tulip bulbs at that time had serious and widespread consequences for the Dutch economy. The effects were so economically damaging, in this account of the events, because large numbers of people from all levels of Dutch society were involved in the speculation in tulip bulbs, with many of them being forced into bankruptcy as a result of the crash - a case frequently cited is that of the artist Jan van Goyen who is said to have died in penury because of his losses in this affair.”

Dr. J. Leslie Price is a former Reader in History at the University of Hull, and is one of the leading British authorities on the history of the Dutch Republic. Dr. J. Leslie Price is the author of a number of books and articles including Culture and Society in the Dutch Republic During the Seventeenth Century (1974), The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century (1998), Dutch Society, 1588-1712 (2000), and Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (2011). 

Anne Goldgar is a Professor in Early Modern European History at King's College London, and has taught in the Department since 1993. Prior to this, she was a Research Fellow at Clare Hall Cambridge.

According to Dr. J. Leslie Price, Professor Anne Goldgar points out that many of those involved in the crisis of 1637 can be found still heavily involved with the trade in tulips in later years. "Tulipmania did not cause serious economic problems for Holland, let alone the Dutch Republic as a whole. It did not even seriously damage the tulip trade: Tulips continued to be cultivated, discussed, exchanged, bought and sold, and appeared in works of art, more or less as before." For Dr. J. Leslie Price, however, the crucial question is why this disturbance in the tulip trade nevertheless attracted, and continued to attract, so much attention. Dr. J. Leslie Price's full revision can be found here  

Keukenhof: The largest flower garden in the world

The largest and most famous flower garden in the world is not too far from Amsterdam; it is just south of Haarlem, the town known as the most Flemish city of the north. The flower garden is called Keukenhof, and visitors to Keukenhof can experience the gorgeous views of blooming Dutch tulips as well as other over seven million pretty flowers including orchids, roses, carnations, irises, hyacinths, daffodils, lilies, and many others, all of which have made The Netherlands famous around the world. 

The best time to visit Keukenhof is between March 20 to May 10 when the flower park opens its doors coinciding with the tulip blooming season. Every year, Keukenhof chooses a different theme, meaning the experience is unique each time. Keukenhof can easily be reached by public transport within half an hour from Amsterdam, Haarlem, Rotterdam, and The Hague. The annual Tulip Festival is usually held in May. Sadly, this year it has been cancelled due to the ongoing pandemic. 

Tulip Museum in Amsterdam

Amsterdam tulip museum
Amsterdam Tulip Museum in the Canal District, Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Source: petekarici/iStock

Tulips have their own museum in The Netherlands. The Amsterdam Tulip Museum takes visitors on a journey through the history of the tulip. The museum offers a deep look into The Netherlands’ favorite flower through photographs, videos, interactive displays, and historical artifacts.  

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