A Brief History of Tulip Mania: Broken Bulbs that Broke the Bank!

Tulip Mania, Tulip Craze, Dutch Tulpenwindhandel… When tulips came to the Netherlands, the world was struck! But how did a bulb virus affecting the Tulipa genus make them so desirable?

One winter morning in 1637 a sailor was offered a breakfast of red herring at a Dutch merchant’s counting house. Taking the chance to add a little relish to his sandwich he swiped an onion seen lying on the counter. Little did he know that his ‘onion’ had actually been a valuable Semper Augustus Tulip bulb, whose cost might have fed his whole ship’s crew for 12 months! He was promptly charged with a felony and thrown in prison.

So, Seed Pantry, what is a ‘broken bulb’?

Spread by aphids, the Tulip Breaking virus alters pigments in the petal cells, causing the flower to ‘break’ its lock on a single colour. The flowers bloom with intricate, multicoloured feathering and flamed petals. Like nothing anyone had ever known in the flower world, the distinct so-called “broken bulbs” captured the eyes and hearts of the world. The cause of these striking floral patterns was also it’s curse. Once a bulb is infected, it’s daughter bulbs will be too. With each generation the virus weakens the bulbs, they become smaller, weaker, and less likely to reproduce until they wither away completely. Some varieties, such as the Semper Augustus tulip, have now become extinct as a result of the disease.

Luckily we now have “Modern Rembrandts” – un-broken tulips such as Tulipa ‘Rem’s Favourite’ that have been bred to display multiple colours and wonderful streaked and flared patterns.

How did these bulbs cause financial ruin?

The wonderfully unpredictable, vividly coloured flowers quickly became a popular commodity; their weakness a trait that only made them more rare and desirable. As demand quickly exceeded supply the prices for these bulbs began to soar. Until 1633 the tulip trade in Holland had been restricted to professional growers, but the rising prices tempted many ordinary families to enter into the market until, in 1636, demand really took off. Homes were mortgaged so that bulbs could be bought and resold at higher prices, and a single bulb became acceptable as dowry for a bride!

In the depths of winter, with the bulbs still frozen beneath the ground, traders exchanged promises to buy the tulip bulbs in the springtime with high hopes that the flowers would fetch even higher prices. The Semper Augustus bulb with it’s flame-like white and red petals, relative to the wages of the time, would sell for the equivalent worth of £770,000 today!

Alas, tulip mania collapsed before the arrival spring of 1637, before the first blooms. Tulip traders struggled to find new buyers who were willing to pay increasingly inflated prices for the bulbs and the market crashed, sweeping away fortunes and leaving traders in financial ruin.

We hope you enjoyed the brief history lesson and learning about Tulip mania. Look out for a wonderful range of tulips in October and November Grow Club boxes!

The Seed Pantry team 🌼

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