Tulip mania: The history of the tulip market

Tulips are a fantastic and inexpensive way to add color to your spring garden; learn how they gained popularity.

an aerial shot of dozens of multicolored tulips.
Photo credit: Getty Images.

To inexpensively add color to your spring gardens, look no further than tulips! You can typically purchase tulip bulbs for around one to two dollars each. Some fancy varieties are slightly more. This is still a bargain for the happiness they will bring to your spring! But do you know the history of this beautiful flower? This article from Michigan State University Extension will share a bit of the rich chronicles beyond the tulip.

Tulips were introduced to Europe by the Emperor to the Sultan of Turkey, who sent the first bulbs to Vienna in 1554. Their popularity grew, especially after 1593 when the Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius planted a collection of bulbs and they proved to tolerate very harsh conditions. Soon, the tulip grew in popularity throughout Europe.

The tulip became a luxury item and many varieties were introduced. The varieties were classified and the most sought-after, prized tulips were the streaked tulips, especially yellow or white streaks on a red or purple background. These flame-like tulips were highly sought after. Interestingly, the streaks or “flames” of the tulip petals were caused by a virus. The virus is the tulip breaking virus, or tulip mosaic virus.

Prices for the tulips with the prized virus rose steadily. By 1634, the demand for the tulips was incredibly high and tulip traders were in a tulip frenzy. This became known in the botany world as “tulip mania.” Tulip mania reached its peak in the winter of 1636 and 1637 when bulbs were changing hands at an increasing rate, but no delivery of these precious bulbs were ever fulfilled.

Before the collapse, many people gained and loss tremendous amounts of wealth due to tulip trading. There is one report in 1635 of a sale of 40 tulip bulbs bought for 100,000 florins: by comparison, a ton of butter cost around 100 florins. A skilled laborer might earn 150 florins a year; eight fat swine cost 240 florins. Many people would invest a whole year’s earning or more on a few prized tulip bulbs. Like any market when the market falls, it falls hard. Tulip mania left many tulip traders with unsold tulip bulbs and mounting debt.

Fortunately for us, tulips are still popular and there are new varieties being developed and marketed every year to keep our gardens in the most up-to-date tulip style. For a fraction of the cost of a cup of coffee, you can enjoy these magnificent bulbs in your own spring garden.

For more on the subject of tulip mania, there are several good books. You can also use a resource from The University of Chicago, Tulipmania Money, Honor and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age by Anne Goldgar, to learn more about this fascinating time in the story of tulips.

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