Bryant continues with his series on colours in plants. He writes:
A big thank you to James Gaither (J.G. in S.F.@Flickr) for contributing today’s image of Tulipa ‘Monsella’. Prior to reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, the word “tulip” would make me cringe. It’s hard to put my finger on why I disliked them, but it had something to do with how commonplace they are. However, when I look at how Tulipa became so widespread, I feel it is nothing less than extraordinary. It would be a travesty to do a series on colour and not mention the tulip!
Tulipa wild diversity is concentrated in the Tien Shan, Hindu Kush, and Pamir Mountains. In 1554, the first bulbs and seeds were shipped out of their native range to Vienna, where they soon became popular among gardeners. At the time, no flower in Europe demonstrated such highly saturated colours like those found in tulips, and people started to pay higher prices for vibrant varieties. This was the start of what is known as “tulip mania“, which began in 1634 in the Netherlands. Tulip mania is now used as a prime example of an economic bubble, or when the price of an asset (such as a tulip) exceeds its intrinsic value. At the height of tulip mania, a single Tulipa ‘Semper Augustus’ bulb sold for the modern equivalent of roughly 10-15 million dollars! However, this craze didn’t last long, and the end of tulip mania came rather abruptly in February of 1637, when buyers refused to show up to the flower auction in protest of the astronomical prices.
Tulipa ‘Monsella’, pictured above, is not unlike Tulipa ‘Semper Augustus’, as they both demonstrate a two-tone pattern. However the “broken pattern” in the ‘Semper Augustus’ tulip was caused by a virus, whereas modern variegated tulips that are commercially sold today are (almost?) exclusively created through intensive breeding regimes. To think that people valued the different colours of tulips so much that they were willing to pay the same price as what a mansion would cost seems absolutely ludicrous.
The Dutch continue to be one of the leaders in the tulip and cut-flower trade, with many global industry transactions occurring in the fifth largest building in the world in Aalsmeer, Netherlands. The floral industry is a multibillion dollar industry, based on a product whose primary asset is colour. In the words of Michael Pollan, “Flowers are exquisitely useless. They’re this great froth of extravagance in our lives. But that there is a multibillion-dollar trade in these wonderful, useless, beautiful things is kind of great”.
For more information of the tulip trade as well as a look at the industry from the tulip’s perspective I highly recommend you read or watch The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan.