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Tulipmania Today

A story of local tulip envy with historical notes on what was called tulipmania in Holland a few centuries ago. I have some very unusual Dutch bulbs ready to crack through the dirt.


I want to believe in tulipmania, alive in Europe for over 400 years and more recently here in the States. Such a belief would blind me to my own covetous nature. Last spring, I was out walking near the plush private Rocky Hill School comparing my scant spring flowers to those in other neighbors’ yards. (Clearly the discounted “Dutch” bulbs I purchased at BJ’s in Coventry had taken early retirement.) I praised one woman’s tulips on Wampanoag St. and she said, “Oh!  My husband has already placed the fall order for tulips at Brecks.”

Then came a Brecks’ flashback. Back in Topsfield, Massachusetts, I had a small garden directly over the cesspool. As you might imagine, everything planted there flourished. I used to order gladioli bulbs from Brecks. They require aftercare. You plant them in the spring for mid-to-late summer blooming. They grow so tall, you have to stake them or they topple over. Their blooms are luscious hybrid colors like pink salmon and they just seem to burst open all at once. As their botanical birth mother, I was so proud of them. But then, in the fall you have to dig them up again and store them in a cool, dry place. They will not lay dormant through winter but rot and die in the ground.

I was weeding around these salmon beauties when my pre-ex-husband, just back from the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, came and stood over my bent back and, sans preliminary small talk, announced, “I want you to know I have met someone. I have decided to go into therapy to see if these are true feelings or baggage from my past.” Six months later, when the Dutch bulbs were huddled together in a thick brown grocery bag in the basement, I told him to leave.

This memory was still buried when I returned from my Rocky Hill walk and hopped on what Colin Beavan, the No Impact Man, calls a  “hedonistic treadmill,” surfing Breck’s website. The catalog was a long time coming, a marked difference from the torrent of flyers and emails I would receive after my first purchase.[1]

Soon the phlox awakened all over my street, in other people’s yards, of course. Phlox forms velvety purple (or white) carpets, ground cover for the newly warming earth. I ordered two plants at $9.95 each. When the first package came, with bulb fertilizer since misplaced, I was sure I had been had. I eagerly scissored open the plastic bag to find only a loose mound of moist dirt. It was like buying a can of “Maine Air,” vacuum packed and there’s nothing inside. Before I threw the dirt away, I saw scraggly white roots. “The phlox in dormant state” said the directions. I planted them, but don’t believe anything will come of these pricey roots.

Bulb Mania Genealogy

I don’t know if my predecessors were dealing with the end of a long-term relationship or not, but my bulb frenzy has an historical basis. Research shows that “The Tulipmania” began in Turkey in the middle of the 16th century.  Or maybe it was not a mania but an appreciation. One Conrad Gesner, who claims to be the source of the craze, says he saw a tulip in the garden of Counsellor Herwart in Augsberg in 1559. Herwart had received the bulbs to be planted in his exotic garden from a friend in Constantinople, “where the flower had long been a favorite” (Mackay 89). In the next 10 to 11 years rich people in Holland and Germany eagerly acquired these bulbs. My source for this information is a chapter in an 1841 anthology by Charles MacKay entitled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Writing over 100 years later in the popular weekly magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Frank Taylor has a different foundational story. He reports that the tulips did not arrive in Holland until 1584. They did come from Turkey where they “grew wild in the uplands, near the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers” (130).  The tulips’ arrival started a “frenzy of speculation.”  The word tulip comes from the Dutch word tülbend, meaning turban, because the blossom looks like an upside-down turban (130).  “The ordinarily sensible Hollanders went on a speculative orgy even wilder than the gold and oil and uranium booms of recent years” (Taylor 130). The term tulipmania describes “the speculative craze for tulip blubs in the Netherlands of the 1620’s.... the apparently strange compulsion that led otherwise sensible merchants, nobles and artisan weavers to spend all they had and more on tulips, only to land in bankruptcy and ruin when the bottom fell out of the market in February 1637 (Taylor 2-3).  “Bulbs are said to have changed hands many times in a frenzy of financial madness” (3). 

However,  Anne Goldgar, a Reader in Early Modern History at King’s College London, debunks the mania narratives. There was no widespread tulipmania among all social classes in Holland. Studying archives, she found “only” 370 people who bought or sold tulip bulbs in Haarlem, Amsterdam, and Enkhuizen, but acknowledges that her figures are “underestimates,” as “it has not been possible to identify everyone in the cities I have studied who took part in the tulip trade” (4).

Whether or not there was a cross-cultural frenzy in the 16th century, in the 20th century, the export of bulbs was big business in Holland. So, instead of profiting off countrymen, the Dutch lured Americans, Germans and British buyers. Over 50 years ago, “Americans became the top consumers of the Dutch bulb growers, buying one-fourth of the annual harvest” (130). 

I recall a bleak fall day in 2011 with temperatures in the 40s and a cold rain falling. I had planted 76 of the 117 Brecks’ Dutch bulbs I ordered at the cost of $202. The cataloged photos of what my bulbs were to become kept me digging up dirt that day. I ordered 12 of the Daffodil Butterfly Mixture, the “award-winning Daffodil of the Year ... graceful, 6” two-toned blooms with split coronas.” They now flaunt their pink/white and yellow/orange blooms, happy despite this reverse spring. But what I am waiting for is the tulips. I long to see the ones with names like the Orange Emperor, the Rembrandt, and the Greenland, and I am especially dying to hear what that lady over on Wampanoag says when she sees my 10 Queen of the Night solid black tulips.

Works Cited

Goldgar, Anne. History Today 57.6 (Jun 2007). “Flower Power Tulipmania: An

Overblown Crisis.” Academiic Search Premier.  EBSCO. n.pag. Web. 11 Oct

 2011.

Mackay, Charles.  “The Tulipmania.”  Ed. Charles Mackay. Extraordinary Popular

Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. 3rd ed.  NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1932.  89-97.

Taylor, Frank J.  “A Bloom for Mother-in-Law.”  Saturday Evening Post 229.41 (13

Apr 1957): 42+.  Print.

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Brenda Marquis April 20, 2012 at 05:26 PM
Your tulips look awesome, neighbor. I haven't seen the Queens of the Night; however. Do you have them hidining away in a space where only you can enjoy??? B

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