Massed tulips under lights at Canberra Floriade
Floriade is a word used for a large international flower exhibition held in the Netherlands every ten years. It moves to a different Dutch city every time. It is also used by the ACT for its bulb and tulip festival each year. As a major world producer of flowers and bulbs the Netherlands also has a tulip festival annually at the Keukenhof Garden, the world’s largest garden. Keukenhof covers about 65 acres (32 hectares) and displays seven million bulbs, mainly tulips. In Australia we are lucky to have such a large tulip festival annually in Canberra saving us the expense of travel to Keukenhof! But there are other tulip festivals in Australia including ones in the Dandenongs in Victoria, at Bowral in the NSW Highlands and Wynyard in Tasmania. All regions produce tulips commercially as well as having festivals.
Tulips belong to the Lilly family and there 109 species of tulips and hundreds of garden hybrids or cultivars. Many tulips come from Turkey and Iran but some come from Europe, China and North America. The Netherlands is the world’s largest commercial grower of tulip bulbs and flowers. The flowers are popular with gardeners the world over. Most tulips are of a single colour but a virus carried by an aphid has led to multicoloured and variegated varieties. The cup shape of the tulip is easily recognisable. Some fancy species now have ruffled edges (called parrot tulips) and the most common variety grown in Australian gardens is the Monet Tulip which comes in a huge range of colours from red, yellow, orange, white and variegated. The Queen of the Night is a common “black” variety for gardens and it comes in the parrot form too.
It seems hard to credit but tulips once led to a mania and bulbs used to cost literally the equivalent of thousands of dollars. This occurred during the Golden Age of Holland in the mid 1630s. Tulips were a new introduction to Holland then. Within a couple of years and by 1636 tulip bulbs had become the fourth leading export of the Netherlands. Tulips became so fashionable with the wealthy in Holland and France that prices began to skyrocket in early 1636.At their peak a tulip bulb was costing ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman in Holland. The high prices added to the frenzy as more and more people tried to buy bulbs. An investment “bubble” occurred and as we all known bubbles burst. Tulips were bought to demonstrate wealth and to decorate the fancy rural estates of wealthy Dutch merchants. The intensity of a single colour flower was greatly appreciated. The tulip was new and novel in Europe. At its height of price one merchant offered 12 acres of land for a single tulip bulb of a variegated kind. It was these striped tulips that were most highly prized. These bulbs were named after Dutch generals and aristocrats. The prices boomed as traders signed contracts (futures trading) to buy bulbs at the end of the season after they had flowered. If prices rose in the meantime traders made big profits. Often no bulbs changed hands, just money on contracts and future contracts. At other times some bulbs were sold or traded up to ten times a day! Thus the boom took off and prices spiralled upwards. Price surges had occurred in 1621, 1630 and finally the big surge in 1635-6. Suddenly prices fell in February 1636. Some sellers reneged on contracts. Fortunes were lost by some traders and buyers. Bulbs that sold for 5,000 Dutch guilders a few weeks before were suddenly worth only 50 guilders! The situation was exacerbated by bubonic plague around Haarlem the main bulb growing district in 1636. The mania, as it was properly called, has been told in several books, novels and Dutch painters of the times often depicted tulip flowers. Recent historical research has indicated that only a limited number of traders and merchants engaged in this trade and the “bubble” had no great economic impact on the Netherlands, although it did affect some traders financially. The bursting of the bubble was mainly provoked by a new Dutch law in 1636 that would remove the obligation on traders to actually buy bulbs in the future even if they had signed contracts to do so. How amazing that a beautiful flower could set off a mania and that “value” could be so unrelated to the actual object- a short lived bulb! Hans Bollongier painted this Still Life with Flowers in 1639 featuring one of the formerly prized striped tulips.