WICHE: Tulipomania and the need for some chilling time

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The tepid winter has the plants shooting up early.

By Jeneen Wiche

Spring bulbs popping up everywhere as temperatures roller-coaster from the teens to the 60s has left many scratching their heads. There is not much we can do to fool Mother Nature, so we must be patient and hope that we have a decent display come March.

I have some foliage that has turned to mush, but the bulb and bloom is still safe beneath the soil surface; the bulb will send up fresh foliage in due time.

The real issue with the crazy weather is that our bulbs need sufficient dormancy and chilling time in the ground in order to bloom well.

Bulbs will do well if they are grown in a similar climate to where the species adapted. The timing and amount of rainfall and temperatures have more to do with success and failure then many of us realize.

For example, many tulip species shrink in size each consecutive year because we do not have a long enough chilling season for them to rest during the winter. This chilling period is necessary to set off a bio-chemical response in the bulb that triggers blooming.

For many tulips, especially hybrids, the chilling period needs to last at least 16 to 20 weeks with a ground temperature at or below 45 degrees. That’s some precise science for a bulb with a haughty past.

We associate tulips with Holland, but if history played out a little differently, Austria could have been, and Turkey should have been, the bulb capital of the world.

Not only are tulips not native to Holland, they weren’t even collected by a Dutchman. Today the country is the No. 1 exporter of tulips, and of the 12,000 varieties of bulbs exported, 3,500 are tulip varieties.

These Dutch exports amount to about $750 million each year. For American retailers this translates into over $500 million a year. It is big business, but what’s really fascinating about tulips is their forgotten past.

The tulip dates back some 4,000 years ago where artistic representations depicted on art have been uncovered on Crete, one of the Greek islands, and from Assyria, an ancient country in western Asia.

The flower came to be called a tulip because of its resemblance to the Turkish headdress called “dulban.” In the 1550s, the Austrian ambassador to Turkey described the tulips blooming in the gardens of Constantinople, where he likely misunderstood his interpreter and began calling the turban-like flowers “tulipam.”

When the ambassador returned to Vienna, he brought some bulbs with him and presented them to Carolus Clusius, the curator of the Imperial Medicinal Garden of the Austrian Empire.

Shortly thereafter Clusius took a new job at the medicinal gardens at the University of Leiden in Holland, and, yes, he took the bulbs with him.

Legend has it that envious Dutch gardeners raided the medicinal gardens under the cover of darkness and made off with all the tulip bulbs and planted them throughout Holland.

By the early 1600s the tulip trade was in the hands of a few specialists with interactions taking place among Turkey, Austria and Holland.

By 1630, however, nearly everyone in Holland was getting into the bulb business because one choice bulb could turn a poor family into a rich one. The clamor over the bulb trade and the huge prices led to a market that was based on speculation.

Traders would bid on a tulip that didn’t even exist, hoping that it would mutate into a flower that was new and unusual, thus bringing top dollar.

The tulip trade became such big business in Holland that it nearly caused the collapse of their economy in the late 1630s. Everyone got into the business, and when the market did collapse in 1637, many were left with nothing except a few bulbs for which there was no demand.

It took years for the Holland economy to rebound as Tulipomania faded into history.

The tulip, however, remained a favorite, and trade resumed at a more normal pace and at a more reasonable price. The tulip became a symbol of vanity in Dutch art because of the fervor during Tulipomania.

Dutch painters created still-life paintings with tulips reminding everyone that “all that blooms, shall fade” and that “a fortune today turns to ashes tomorrow.”