April showers have brought May flowers… to the blog. Today’s post is one of a May Bouquet series focused on flowers one might find in a bouquet. Y’know, leading up to Mother’s Day today! Think of these posts as daily reminders with wonderful suggestions on ways to honor the mothers in your lives.*
Today’s post is tip-toeing through the tulips. They rank at the top of lists for most popular cut flowers and bulb plants in gardens. The flowers provide intense spring color in such uniformity that they are easy to incorporate into any arrangement- vase or plot.
These flowers originated in central Asia, but their introduction to Europe in the late 1500s created such a stir in the Netherlands it has come to be known as ‘tulip mania.’ The Dutch economy was good at the turn of the 17th century, so people had time to invest in aesthetics. The recently introduced tulip was the perfect medium with its dazzling capacity for intense color on a consistent form. New color varieties were introduced with names like Viceroy and Semper Augustus and demand caused their prices to skyrocket.
However, basic tenets of tulip biology made the economic speculation craze dangerous and untenable. While tulips are perennials that can be grown from bulbs year after year, it takes as along as 4-6 years to go from seed to a bulb large enough to flower. This makes introducing new varieties slow, even when vegetatively propagating them from bulb offsets. Plus, as they are flowers, their beauty is by definition fleeting. They bloom for a short time during the spring then exist as bulbs for the remainder of the year.
Furthermore, the most desired tulips were the ‘broken’ varieties with blooms containing streaks of two colors. During this period, the streaks were not due to some inheritable genetic mutation, but infection with Tulip Breaking Virus. It caused pleasing visual appeal, but also weakened its host. Eventually, the bulbs weakened to the point of not being able to flower or produce additional bulb offsets. Thus, the most expensive tulips in history have gone extinct. Many of the streaked varieties available on today’s market are the result of stable genetic mutations that affect flower coloration, but not the vigor of the plant. There are only a few truly ‘broken’ varieties left (like Absalon), which are infected with TBV, but for some reason the infection has not manifested itself beyond the effects on flower color pattern.
So just how much money are we talking about? More than anyone in modern times has spent at a garden center for a single bulb. For example, records indicate that a bulb for ‘The Viceroy’ sold for approximately ten times the annual earnings of a skilled craftsman. The peak of tulip bulb speculation was the winter of 1636-1637. Of course, at this time tulips are only bulbs with no flowers at all, hardly things that look worthy of fortunes. Tulip trading was a futures market, and contracts were written based on what traders thought the bulbs would be worth to consumers at spring planting time. At some point that winter, people came to their senses. The first few that cashed in their contracts set off a selling frenzy that caused the bottom to drop out of the market.
In the end, fortunes were lost and some were left with lots of worthless bulbs. I’m sure their beauty that spring was just salt on the wound. It was even difficult to eat their losses. Tulip bulbs taste awful and when not prepared correctly, they are poisonous. They are really only a food source of last resort in extreme situations, like the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II.
Today’s tulip markets are more rational, but still huge business in floriculture. New colors, shapes and patterns are being developed, but the source of the broken tulips, Tulip Breaking Virus, is no longer coveted, but eliminated. The ultimate damage this pathogen does to vigor of the tulip bulbs outweighs the production of any desirable color patterns. The spread of this infection is controlled by using pesticides and other measures to reduce aphids on the tulips that spread the virus as they eat on one plant then another. TBV is detected by experts trained to spot the symptoms in the tulip plants in the field. Infected plants are removed and destroyed. A new report out this year describes an instrument capable of scanning plants in the field for TBV to improve this laborious process.
So, if tulips find their way into your bouquet today, enjoy them- just don’t go crazy.
*Maybe you’ve learned something about plants along the way. Maybe these posts have helped you remember to pick up flowers for the mothers in your life. But let me just add, if one of those mothers still has small children, say that you sired or otherwise claim, make sure your bouquet also includes species like folded laundry, extra sleep, cooked meal, clean kitchen and bathroom. These varieties, while difficult to cultivate without the help of a mother, will surely reap you returns greater than those seen during tulip mania.
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