When I was growing up in Vinemount, Ontario, tulips sprouted up in a nearby pear orchard in early spring and I always thought it was the most magical thing. As a child, a tulip bulb was the first flower I ever planted by myself and I recall the thrill of waiting for it to reveal itself. Later, I learned of a time when people everywhere were seduced by this humble little flower, even driven to madness by it. You might even say the entire spectrum of human endeavor can be revealed in the tulip’s passage through history.
No other symbol has carried the cultural baggage of political upheavals, social behavior, economic booms and busts, and religious persecution. Art, beauty, lust, greed, deception, anguish, devotion — all played a part in the development of the tulip from a simple oriental wildflower to the ubiquitous garden flower it is today.
For businessmen the lust for tulips was less enthusiasm for its beauty than as currency. The tulip’s mysterious habit of breaking and developing new forms and colours was the basis of tulip mania, first with the Dutch, later the English and French since a gardener with a desirable new variety could make a fortune. The secret to the spectacular variegations is small parasitic aphids which while weakening the plant, are responsible for its sublime hues. Only in the 1920s did a female British botanist discover this.
Tulips possess a deep rich symbolism which speaks to an age of luxury, wealth and prosperity. In Christian tradition, flowers conveying themes related to myths and legends invited questioning of values associated with life and beauty. Certainly Sylvia Plath’s powerful poem, Tulips does just that.
Turkish Sultans were the first to appreciate the mythic tulip, and the name itself means turban. Sultans held gaily lit garden parties forcing guests to dress in colours to match the tulip beds and were executed by gardeners if they did not comply. And Ottoman soldiers wore embroidered tulips on their underwear as Islamic tradition required artistry be kept in one’s pants, so to speak.
The tulip is such a complex flower that I never tire of its endless artistic possibilities.