They inspired a speculative financial bubble in the 1600s and a hit song in the United States three centuries later.
Still today, tulips remain one of the most popular flowers in the world and a sure sign of spring when they rise from the ground in all of their beautiful bounty.
If you need a reprieve from the winter doldrums, one sure-fire way is to bring fresh-cut, colorful tulips into your home or workplace. What’s more, for their association with love, tulips are a popular choice as a Valentine’s Day gift.
Royer’s Flowers & Gifts sources tulips from growers in the Netherlands, the world’s largest commercial producer of tulips. The capital city, Amsterdam, celebrates National Tulip Day on the third Saturday of January. The 2024 theme: Let’s Dance.
Part of the lily family, tulips arrived in the Netherlands in the 16th century from their native central Asia, where they grew wild in the mountain valleys where China and Tibet meet Afghanistan and Russia. The name “tulip” is said to come from a Turkish word for “turban,” suggesting a physical resemblance between the flower and the cloth headwear.
The arrival of tulips corresponded with Netherlands’ independence from Spain and what history.com called “a period of unmatched wealth” fueled by international trade. That wealth coincided with a fascination with so-called broken tulips, or bulbs that produced striped and speckled flowers.
If you experienced the fervor for Beanie Babies in the 1990s, you got a taste for the speculative fever, or tulip mania, that overtook the Netherlands, peaking in the winter of 1636-37.
Tulips with a “striated effect,” or that went from a single color to a feathery or flamelike pattern, became inexplicably valuable: The price of the most-prized bulbs matched the going rate for a nice house. It was only discovered in the 19th century that this unique feature resulted from a virus.
“But in the 17th century, this was still not understood,” according to the BBC, “and so, strangely enough diseased tulips, emblazoned with distinctive patterns, became more prized than healthy ones in the Dutch Republic.”
Tulip mania came and went, but tulips took root in the Netherlands. It’s what DutchGrown.com, a wholesale flower bulb exporter, credits to the country’s “beautiful sandy soil, and a century old tradition of being able to control water and make it do whatever we want.”
Specifically, it requires a bit of “tulip trickery,” making “bulbs believe they have been through a hot, dry summer and an arctic winter” and replicating their native habitat.
Tulips technically are perennials, but they struggle to act that way in the warmer United States.
“Plant a bulb in fall and even a novice gardener can expect to see a beautiful flower come spring,” according to AmericanMeadows.com. “But getting a tulip to perform well in the second or third year is another story.”
Because tulips are one of the easiest flowers to grow in a garden, most American consumers replant bulbs every year.
Several other tidbits about tulips:
- Even as a cut stem, tulips will continue to grow in water, lasting seven days after they have bloomed.
- They do best in full sun and, like sunflowers, are heliotropic, bending toward light throughout the day.
- They come in a variety of colors rich in symbolism: pink, happiness and confidence; purple, royalty; yellow, cheerful thoughts; white, forgiveness.
- Red is the symbol of everlasting love, which strikes at the heart of the 1929 chart-topping song, “Tiptoe through the Tulips,” which appeared in a movie called “Gold Diggers of Broadway.” (Cult artist Tiny Tim would turn it into a hit again in the 1960s.)
“And when I kiss you in the garden in the moonlight,” the song says, “Will you pardon me and tiptoe through the tulips with me?”