Today, some fat red tulips dipped under their own weight.
Hard to believe that in the early 17th century tulips were more valuable than any other item in Dutch trade. The introduction of the tulip to Europe is often attributed to Ogier de Busbeco, the ambassador to the Sultan of Turkey, who sent the first tulip bulbs and seeds to Vienna in 1554 from the Ottoman Empire. Monet painted Dutch fields a bit later.
Growers strove to create striations on the petals and fluttery edges that investors went crazy over.
They had names like Admiral and Viceroy (below). The most intense trading was done with bulbs, so you would never even know until the growing season what your flower would look like.
At the peak of tulip mania, in February 1637, some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled artisan. The Intricate stripes we see were caused by a tulip-specific mosaic virus, which could “break” petal color into two or more. Speculators entered the market. The Viceroy was sold for two lasts of wheat, four lasts of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four tuns of beer, four tuns of butter, 1,000 pounds of cheese, a complete bed, a suit of clothes and a silver drinking cup.
When I was a kid I used to delight in creating new varieties of tulips by taking the pollen from the stamen of one and rubbing it on the pistil of another, then waiting a year to see what happened.
There are still breeders of tulips out there trying to capture the gardener’s imagination, if not their gold, as with the now-commercially-available Black Parrot Tulip.
In the 1600s, the bubble didn’t last. The heated trading sessions in the taverns, called “colleges,” died out. Some said it was the bubonic plague that doomed Tulip Mania. Or maybe one day everyone woke up and said, Aren’t we being silly? Let’s go back to making cheese, thousands of pounds of it, something more appropriate for trade. Or go to sea and fight some wars. How about bitcoin? We don’t need tulips for that, do we?