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“I hid a flower in a garden. I also hid a body there” – Jarod Kintz

No seriously, you better tiptoe through the tulips.

No seriously, you better tiptoe through the tulips.

Humanity can make a monster out of anything.  Teen pop stars.  Fox News.  Peanuts.  The world is a big, scary place filled with stuff that wants to oppress you, empty your bank account, encourage your moral dissolution, warp your mind, or send you into anaphylactic shock.  Everything in modern society seems to get declared a mortal threat eventually.  Best to grow your own food, make your own clothes, stay away from cell towers and microwave ovens, smash your television, and just generally go off the grid and get back to nature.  Or it would be, if nature didn’t hate you too.  Lions, tigers, bears, sharks, insects, intestinal parasites, and microbes all consider you a delectable food group.  Heck, even your beloved pet cat will happily eat you if he deems it necessary.  It seems like there is only safety in flowers.  Sure you might sneeze a little due to your pollen allergies, but as a general rule they’re relatively immobile, pretty, and smell nice (which certainly can’t be said about most people you meet, except perhaps a marked variance in mobility), and more importantly, they do not seek your imminent destruction.  Or do they?  We have evidence that from the 16th-19th Century A.D., the humble tulip engaged in a concerted campaign of psychological and economic warfare for the hearts, minds, and retirement savings of Europeans.

A tulip is a disarmingly adorable, bulbous little perennial of which there are some 75 wild species, with a native habitat that extends from the southern Mediterranean all the way to western China, and is thought of as typical steppe vegetation, that is to say that if a tulip was a person, he would probably be a Mongol (who tellingly also had aspirations towards world domination).  The luminaries of Classical Antiquity weren’t particularly interested in tulips, and it seems that nobody was deliberately cultivating them until roughly the 10th Century A.D. in Anatolia, Turkey, and no one mentioned them in western Europe until 1554 A.D.  The Ottoman Empire (1299-1923 A.D.) thought tulips were fairly cool.  It is generally thought that we derive the word “tulip” from the Ottoman Turkish tülbend (“gauze”), but some scholars think it ultimately originates with the Persian delband (“Turban”), and because it was fashionable for Ottoman Turks to wear tulips in their turbans, the name for the hat and the name for the flower got confused in early translations.  It didn’t hurt that in Arabic, the tulip is called lale, which just so happens to use the same letters as “Allah”, lending a little religious significance to the flower.  Clearly, tulips began by co-opting the Ottomans, gathering their floral forces, perfecting their tactics, and testing optimal delivery systems for a strike deep into the heart of Europe.

Now, the average tulip is fairly fragile, preferring temperate climates and requiring a period of cool dormancy.  This rules out more aggressive strategies of super-villainy such as massed assaults, protracted trench warfare, or prolonged occupation.  Tulips, having neither air nor naval power required a much more subtle and insidious strategy involving infiltration, economic destabilization, and effective use of propaganda.  The tulip version of Omaha beach revolved around one Oghier Ghislain de Busbecq (1522-1592 A.D.), a Flemish ambassador for Emperor Ferdinand I to Suleyman the Magnificent.  Not only was he a well-travelled diplomat, but he happened to be an herbalist as well.  He is credited with introducing northewestern Europe to the tulip through his 1581 publication of Itinera Constantinopolitanum et Amasianum (known as the “Turkish Letters”), detailing the wonders of Constantinople, decidedly as of yet not Istanbul.  Busbecq praised the tulip, commenting “After stopping one day at Adrianople, we set out to finish the last stage of our journey to Constantinople, which is not far distant. As we passed through these districts we were presented with large nosegays of flowers, the narcissus, the hyacinth, and the tulipan (as the Turks call this last). We were very much surprised to see them blooming in midwinter, a season which does not suit flowers at all. There is a great abundance of the narcissus and hyacinth in Greece; their fragrance is perfectly wonderful, so much so, that, when in great profusion, they affect the heads of those who are unaccustomed to the scent. The tulip has little or no smell; its recommendation is the variety and beauty of the coloring” (Busbecq, 1881, p107).  This was of course a brilliant subterfuge on the part of the tulips, as a sudden appearance to rave reviews and regal fanfare would have been suspicious.  Covert operations commenced.  In 1559, famed Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516-1565 A.D.) noted tulips flowering in the gardens of notables in Augsburg, Swabia and by 1573 had been planted in the Vienna Imperial Botanical Gardens.  A tulip beachhead had been firmly established, with remote outposts situated in a few private gardens in Leiden, Antwerp, and Amsterdam.  The tulip recognized its precarious tactical position, and opted to bide its time.  Taking over the world is not a game for the impatiens (see what I did there).  Another Flemish horticulturalist, Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), the man responsible for planting the first bulbs in the Vienna Botanical Gardens provided the optimal vector for deeper penetration.  Clusius, while on the faculty of medicine at the University of Leiden, was coerced into authoring the first major work of pro-tulip propaganda in 1592.  Just as the Nazi’s concocted the Gleiwitz Incident in 1939 as a “false flag” pretext for invading Poland, the 1598 theft of over 100 tulip bulbs from Clusius’ garden in a single raid was designed to precipitate what we now refer to as the 16th Century “tulipomania”, a carefully executed floral attack on the economy of the Netherlands.  You see, thieves try not to steal stuff that is worthless.  Barring various fetishes, it sort of defeats the purpose.  If a robber wants your tulips, odds are those tulips must have some commercial value.

We may never know why tulips hate the Dutch.  Maybe wooden shoes are an affront to flora everywhere.  In retrospect, the plan was to create a speculative economic bubble, which would eventually burst, dealing a subsequent death blow to Dutch commerce.  And it would have succeeded if it weren’t for those meddling kids (sorry, force of habit).  Actually, it did partially succeed, until most of Europe sobered up and realized that tulips are just flowers.  Villainous flowers bent on world domination, but nonetheless botanical.  I mean, the nerve, as they are not even carnivorous.  In short, the Dutch briefly went crazy over tulips.  Various later assessments by human historians, backpedaled on the severity of the tulip-induced psychosis that descended upon Holland in the 17th Century, perhaps from embarrassment.  German science writer Johann Beckmann (1739-1811) was not thusly hampered by rose-colored glasses, and was determined to call a spade a spade.

These flowers, which are of no further use than to ornament gardens, which are exceeded in beauty by many other plants, and whose duration is short and very precarious, became, in the middle of the 17th century, the object of a trade such as is not to be met with in the history of commerce, and by which their price rose above that of the most precious metals. An account of this trade has been given by many authors; but by all late ones it has been misrepresented.  People laugh at the Tulipomania, because they believe that the beauty and rarity of the flowers induced florists to give such extravagant prices: they imagine that the tulips were purchased so excessively dear in order to ornament gardens; but this supposition is fake, as I shall show hereafter.  This trade was not carried on throughout all Europe, but in some cities of the Netherlands, particularly Amsterdam, Haarlem, Utrecht, Alkmaar, Leyden, Rotterdam, Hoorn, Enkhuysen, and Meedenblick; and rose to the greatest height in the years 1634-1637 (Beckmann, 1846, p25).

Tulips aren’t exactly rare elsewhere in the world, but are not native to northwest Europe, and coaxing them to grow there is a difficult undertaking.  It takes seven to twelve years to grow a tulip from seed to bulb, and bulbs only last for a few years, added to which the bulbs will only bloom for a week or two in April or May.  Cultivating the most aesthetically appealing varieties is an arduous, and time consuming process, which led to a lively speculative market based on the possibility that somebody might have a really cool set of tulips or tulip bulbs within a few years.  As the price of tulips soared and became a Dutch status symbol (much as they had been in the Ottoman Empire), the rest of Europe started to get in on the action.  By 1636 tulips were the fourth largest export from Holland (after gin, herring, and cheese).  The tulipomania spiraled out of control, just as those floral fiends had intended.

In 1634, the rage among the Dutch to possess them was so great that the ordinary industry of the country was neglected, and the population, even to its lowest dregs, embarked in the tulip trade. As the mania increased, prices augmented, until, in the year 1635, many persons were known to invest a fortune of 100,000 florins in the purchase of forty roots. It then became necessary to sell them by their weight in perits, a small weight less than a grain. A tulip of the species called Admiral Liefken, weighing 400 perits, was worth 4400 florins; an Admiral Vander Eyck, weighing 446 perits, was worth 1260 florins; a Childer of 106 perits was worth 1615 florins; a Viceroy of 400, perits, 3000 florins; and, most precious of all, a Semper Augustus, weighing 200 perits, was thought to be very cheap at 5500 florins. The latter was much sought after, and even an inferior bulb might command a price of 2000 florins. It is related that, at one time, early in 1636, there were only two roots of this description to be had in all Holland, and those not of the best. One was in the possession of a dealer in Amsterdam, and the other in Harlaem. So anxious were the speculators to obtain them, that one person offered the fee-simple of twelve acres of building-ground for the Harlaem tulip. That of Amsterdam was bought for 4600 florins, a new carriage, two grey horses, and a complete set of harness (Mackay, 1932, p90-91).

This state of affairs continued, with prices rising ever skyward.  No doubt the tulip plan was to firmly establish an unassailable economic foothold in Holland, from which to conquer the rest of Europe, but they miscalculated and allowed prices to soar beyond all reason, so that even those who had initially been swept up in the insanity of tulipomania began to wonder what all the fuss was about.

At last, however, the more prudent began to see that this state of affairs could not go on indefinitely. Rich people no longer bought the flowers for their collections, but to sell them again at a cent per cent profit. It was perceived that somebody must lose fearfully in the long run. As this conviction spread, the prices fell, never to rise again. Confidence was destroyed, and a universal panic, as wild as the original mania, set in. The consequences were appalling. Every day made large additions to the list of bankrupts and defaulters. Hundreds who had imagined themselves established for life suddenly realized that all they had was a handful of bulbs that nobody would buy, and which would hardly procure the necessaries of existence. The cry of genuine distress rang through the land, and the government was appealed to that measures might be taken to restore public credit. But, after months of weary waiting, the authorities practically admitted their powerlessness, and the people were fain to struggle out of the financial slough into which their infatuation had plunged them as best they could. In due time, of course, matters did readjust themselves; but the commerce of the country suffered a severe shock, from which it was many years in recovering (Oxley, 1896, p33-34).

Few recognize how close we came to answering to floral overlords, horrific horticultural products that found ways to cripple economies and instill madness in our species, conquering otherwise reasonable countries without firing a shot.  Perhaps you believe we can leave well enough alone, and that plants have learned their lesson, but keep a close eye on your garden, for as Washington Post gardening columnist Henry Mitchell defiantly stated, “Nature does not hesitate to interfere with me. So I do not hesitate to tamper with it”.  Accordingly, we would be wise to maintain a strategic stockpile of defoliants.  You never know when some other plant will start getting bright ideas.  Yeah, I’m looking at you kale.

Beckmann, Johann, 1739-1811. A History of Inventions, Discoveries, and Origins. 4th ed., London: H.G. Bohn, 1846.
Busbecq, Ogier Ghislain de, 1522-1592. The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin De Busbecq. London: C.K. Paul, 1881.
Mackay, Charles, 1814-1889. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Boston: L. C. Page & company, 1932.
Oxley, James Macdonald, 1855-1907. The Romance of Commerce. New York, Boston: T. Y. Crowell & company, 1896.