The tulip is the distinctive icon of the Netherlands throughout the world. And as the Keukenhof’s theme this year is Holland, it can do no other than give the tulip centre stage. With millions of tulips blooming in the park and more than a hundred thousand tulips in the Willem-Alexander pavilion, Keukenhof is the place to see tulips. Other reasons that make Keukenhof the place to learn everything about the tulip include the renewed historic tulip garden as well as exhibitions about the history of the tulip, 17th Century tulip mania, tulip myths and modern tulip cultivation.
The tulip travelled far before arriving in the Netherlands. Tulips were originally found in the Tian Shan mountain region of the north-western Himalaya. Dozens of different types in all kinds of colours still grow there each spring. In the 11th Century the Seljuks, who lived there at that time, took the tulip with them to Turkey, where they drove out the Byzantines. The tulip became a cherished flower in Turkish culture, and is still so today. Sultans organised tulip parties each spring. And the most extraordinary tulips were illustrated in beautiful books. Tulips were also depicted on tiles and other household objects.
Dutch trading, including with the then Constantinople, increased towards the middle of the 16th Century. The tulip was a new flower to the Dutch. Botanists such as Dodeneus and Clusius managed to obtain tulip bulbs and by 1560 the first examples were flowering in Antwerp and Mechelen. Clusius was extremely interested in the tulip, wrote a lot about it and, via his network across Europe, maintained a lively barter trade including in tulips. When Carolus Clusius became Hortus Prefectus, or Director, of the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden in 1593, the tulip was one of the things he took with him. This is how the tulip became established in our country.
Mania and myth
Already a popular flower in the Netherlands, at the beginning of the 17th Century the tulip became even more popular. Flowers with flame-like effects were particularly very popular. These reminded people of marble, which was also highly desirable at the time, as were shells with a marbled pattern. Slow tulip bulb reproduction meant supply didn’t increase quickly, but demand did. This led to speculation, with each buyer paying higher amounts than the previous one. The first speculation, or tulip mania, was born. The mania reached its height between 1634 and 1637, with more than a thousand Dutch guilders being paid for some tulips: an astronomic amount, particularly at that time. Bulb speculation ended in February 1637, but the tulip’s popularity in the Netherlands still continues today.
The actual reason for the flame-like tulip was only discovered in 1931: the tulip breaking virus, transferred by aphids and causing a uniform-coloured flower to change into an erratic-looking one.
Alexander Dumas’s book, The Black Tulip (La Tulipe Noire), was published in 1850. A myth was born. It tells the story of a competition in Haarlem in which a large sum was offered to anyone who could develop a black tulip. Set in 1672, the story made an indelible impression on many. The story still appeals to the imagination today.
The colour black does not exist in nature; it is actually intense red or purple. Since the end of the 19th Century various cultivars have been introduced that were almost black. Of these, the ‘Queen of the Night’ is still popular, with some 60 ha still being cultivated. Other, more modern cultivars include ‘Ronaldo’ (30 ha) and ‘Blackjack’ (10 ha). Today agriculturalists are still working on dark tulips, but the market for these is limited. These tulips can be found in Keukenhof. (Keukenhof)