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What are the origins of the Dutch obsession with the Tulip

01:00 Fri 18th Jan 2002 |

A.� It was actually an Austrian who started it all. In 1593 the botanist Carolus Clusius left Vienna to take charge of the new botanic gardens attached to the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and he took part of his own collection with him.

This collection included some tulip bulbs, native to Turkey and given to him by an ambassador of the Turkish Empire. He planted the bulbs in their new surroundings and they instantly attracted the attention of the local population.

Q. Didn't the Dutch mania for the tulip�lead to all sorts of no good and financial instability

A.� It is a quite amazing tale. It is hard to imagine now when we can easily get hold of plants from all four corners of the world but the Dutch, used only to their own more mundane flora and fauna, became completely obsessed with this dazzling exotic bloom. Clusius refused to give away or sell any of his precious bulbs so some unscrupulous locals took it into their own hands and stole some from the garden.

By the 1620's the tulip had become the ultimate status symbol. The rich and wealthy would do almost anything to have them in their gardens and prices soared. It wasn't uncommon for a single bulb to change hands for the equivalent value of one or more houses.

Anna Pavord's definitive book on the subject, The Tulip, tells of how an auction of tulip bulbs in 1637, 99 lots went for a combined total of 90,000 guilders - the equivalent of more than �6 million today.

The inflation that the mania for the plant caused almost brought the economy to its knees and when the market finally collapsed lots of dealers were left penniless overnight.

Q.� How many varieties of tulips are there

A.� At its height in the 18th century there were some 1,300 varieties in cultivation but now, partly because of the way they were so jealously guarded by collectors, we are down to around 400.

Q.� But the Dutch are still the major tulip producers in the world, aren't they

A.� Yes. Half of Holland's 47,000 or so acres of flower farms are dedicated to growing tulips and they export around two billion of the bulbs around the world every year. It is so much part of the Dutch landscape that it is one of its leading tourist attractions. Every spring thousands of Brits flock over the North Sea to see the tulip fields in their full glory.

Q.� Where can you see tulips in this country

A.� The national collection is held at Cambridge University Botanic Gardens.

Q. When do you plant them and what do you need to do to look after them

A.� One of the great joys of the tulip, other than their amazing range of colours and versatility, is that once you've popped them in the ground then there is absolutely nothing you need to do except wait for them to emerge in April. Tulips should be planted in autumn along with the daffodils and crocuses at a depth of between 4-6 inches.

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By Tom Gard

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