Jenny Crick is a graduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa.
In the Netherlands, tulip producers have been forced to discard millions of unsold flowers, with demand having plummeted due to COVID-19. But in Ottawa, the bulbs for the city’s annual tulip festival are already in the ground. As we remain physically distanced for the foreseeable future, the flowers will still bloom into colourful, cheery clusters, indifferent to any human affairs or cancelled events.
For centuries, tulips have been going about their business despite what turmoil might be enveloping the world, and it isn’t the first time these flowers have been mixed up in a tale of economic uncertainty and deadly disease. In fact, it was in the midst of conditions echoing those of COVID-19 that commodified tulips got their start.
This discussion all started with shop talk, really. In a plant biology lab, a colleague and I stood in front of a pot of beleaguered tulips we’d been gifted and began to wonder why these spring blooms – which propagate through their bulbs – would still bother making a flower, a reproductive organ, all the way on the other end of the plant.
The answer to this question eluded us both. Why should a plant that reproduces by splitting one bulb into two bother with all the floral sexuality of pollen, ova and flashy petals? This question also stumped our boss, several garden centre clerks and even my mother, at which point I knew I’d hit a horticultural conspiracy that ran deep.
I scoured the internet for an answer to my question: Do tulips make seeds? Though there were tons of online articles about planting and saving bulbs, most mainstream gardening sites seemed not to mention that there was another way for tulips to reproduce.
Eventually, I ended up on a long-forgotten blog about gardening off the grid. This site advised that one can indeed grow a tulip from the seeds that form at the top of the stem. All it takes, the blog noted, is four to seven years of oscillating warm and cold incubation, after which vegetation that “may not resemble a tulip” will emerge.
So, the tulip will bloom, having spent a decade forming a seed into a bulb. This cleared up why Pinterest isn’t rife with posts on how to save tulip seeds for nifty garden DIYs. If you want a flower before the next lunar eclipse, it’s pretty much bulb or bust.
Bulbs will bud each year, creating a clonal replacement of the original, as well as several new bulbs that can be split off and grown separately. What all this really means is that however you go about it, tulips don’t lend themselves to mass production. And yet, in any spring-frenzied grocery store, swaths of tulips bobble around in seething blocks of colour. But where did the love affair with tulips begin? Once again, the answer was more complicated than I had imagined.
In the mid-17th century, the Netherlands climbed out from under Spanish occupation and hit global markets in a big way. The country was perfectly placed on the trade routes channelling Eastern wonders to Europe, and the economy boomed. It was around this time that tulips made their way to Austria, care of the Ottoman Empire. They’d become an extremely popular garden feature in Turkish culture and slowly made their way north.
The Dutch adopted tulips as a symbol of wealth, driving growers to go in search of new colours and styles. Multicoloured versions began to appear, with vivid stripes along each petal, which fetched their growers even steeper prices. Later, we would discover that striped tulips are infected by tulip breaking virus, which interferes with the pigmentation in the petals, essentially giving the tulips a rash that we humans find extremely attractive.
Sellers noticed that while bulbs would pass their stripes forward through each new generation, the seeds from a striped tulip didn’t inherit those same valuable traits. Since bulbs can only be unearthed in the dormant summer months, sellers had a short window to dig up and sell their new bulbs. And since all bulbs looked the same until they were bought and planted, buyers had to take the sellers at their word regarding what colour of tulip they were paying for. It was the gamble of what colours a bulb would eventually produce that set off a centuries-long mythology of Dutchmen crazed by tulips.
The popular history of what came to be called tulip mania involved growers trading paper slips promising various types of bulbs for higher and higher sums. Wild tales of Dutch tulip fever ran rampant: A single bulb was reportedly traded for 12 acres of land; a sailor who mistook a tulip bulb for an onion was said to have been thrown in jail.
In her book Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age, author Anne Goldgar assigns much of the hype to satirical pamphlets poking fun at traders, which appeared after a sharp but contained bubble in the Dutch tulip market burst in 1637. Contemporary critics also connected tulip mania to the arrival of bubonic plague in Amsterdam in the mid-1630s, a punishment for society’s unchecked greed. In truth, while some money may have been lost, it wasn’t nearly the economic blowout that “history” has promulgated.
While historians have worked to sort through the myths surrounding tulip mania, biology fills in some of the blanks. The tulip’s strange botanical life cycle drove a painstakingly slow business model made more lucrative by an unseen virus, which left behind beautiful but sick symbols of wealth.
The lab I work in is empty now, as we all forgo normal life to weather what COVID-19 has in store for Canada’s health and the economy. The heads of my tulips have inevitably drooped, resting on the table. But tulips are used to this sort of drama, and hope springs eternal.
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