For those of you who think that Tulip mania was a bizarre, but short-lived economic bubble that took the Netherlands by storm in the middle of the 17th century, let me assure you that it has not gone away. My wife and I can both testify to that, having braved the hordes to see the Dutch equivalent of a horticultural Disneyland. It is called Keukenhof and it is spectacular, drawing 800,000 visitors every year. There is a direct shuttle from Schiphol Airport, should you wish to bypass the capital city and head straight for the home of flower power.

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From March 20 to May 20, this floral wonderland offers bulb growers the opportunity to show off in a big way. The park covers thirty-two hectares (about 84 acres for the decimally challenged among us). However, and this is a big caveat for those who don’t like crowds, the equivalent of the entire population of Amsterdam goes through the turnstiles during those two months. And, being human, they procrastinate, waiting for warmth, sunshine and the best blooms. In other words, they all go in May. This year, the so-called spring weather in the Netherlands has been a little late, to put it politely.

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In the 15th century, the land belonged to Countess Jacqueline of Bavaria, who lived in Teylingen Castle. In the courtyard, herbs were collected for the kitchen, hence the name– “kitchen courtyard.” Flash forward to 1949, when a group of bulb growers and exporters came up with a plan for an open-air exhibition of spring flowers in the park on the Keukenhof estate.

To say that their bright idea was brilliant is the understatement of the century. Eighty-five exhibitors, growers, and exporters donate SEVEN MILLION bulbs, the very best in their inventory, to create this astonishing park. And every one of those bulbs has to be planted by hand. The bulb business is a billion euro industry, attracting some ten thousand growers in the Netherlands.

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It all started in the late sixteenth century, when Carolus Clusius, a Dutch botanist and one-time gardener to the Habsburgs, brought the first tulip bulb over from Vienna. It had been brought to Austria from somewhere in Turkey. The tulip flourished in the sandy soil of the Netherlands.

The tulip was different from every other flower known to Europe at that time, with a saturated, intense petal colour that no other plant exhibited. The appearance of the non-pareil tulip as a status symbol at this time coincides with the rise of the newly independent country’s trade fortunes. No longer the Spanish Netherlands, its economic resources could now be channeled into commerce and the country embarked on its Golden Age. Amsterdam merchants were at the centre of the lucrative East Indies trade, where a single voyage could yield profits of 400%. The new merchant class displayed and validated its success, primarily by erecting grand estates surrounded by flower gardens, and the plant that had pride of place was the sensational tulip.

the Viceroy

Tulips were so highly prized that they fuelled a speculative bubble. At the peak of tulip mania, in March 1637, some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. Rare bulbs were supposedly traded for canal houses in Amsterdam. The most spectacular, striped flowers were the result of a virus that, by its very nature, limited the supply.

This list of goods was allegedly exchanged for a single bulb of the Viceroy tulip. At that time the currency was the florin.

Two lasts of wheat 448ƒ
Four lasts of rye 558ƒ
Four fat oxen 480ƒ
Eight fat swine 240ƒ
Twelve fat sheep 120ƒ
Two hogsheads of wine 70ƒ
Four tuns of beer 32ƒ
Two tons of butter 192ƒ
1,000 lb. of cheese 120ƒ
A complete bed 100ƒ
A suit of clothes 80ƒ
A silver drinking cup 60ƒ

Total 2500ƒ

Semper Augustus

Many individuals grew suddenly rich. A golden bait hung temptingly out before the people, and, one after the other, they rushed to the tulip marts. Every one imagined that the passion for tulips would last forever, and that the wealthy from every part of the world would pay whatever prices were asked for them. The riches of Europe would be concentrated on the shores of the Zuyder Zee, and poverty would be banished.

Admiral Verijck

People were purchasing bulb futures at higher and higher prices, intending to re-sell them for a profit. Such a scheme could not last unless someone was ultimately willing to pay such high prices and take possession of the bulbs. In February 1637, tulip traders could no longer find new buyers willing to pay increasingly inflated prices for their bulbs. As this realization set in, prices plummeted.

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Some were left holding contracts to purchase tulips at prices now ten times greater than those on the open market, while others found themselves in possession of bulbs now worth a fraction of the price they had paid. Even though the contracts were torn up, hundreds of investors were ruined. Calvinist ministers rubbed their hands in glee, eager to redeem the lost souls.

Yet tulip mania is not gone, believe me, it lives on multi-coloured splendour, embedded in the brains of tourists from every country on the planet. They arrive, they eat and they photograph. Get thee to Keukenhof, your time is running out.

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