Time to get tulip bulbs in ground for spring blooms

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 15, 2001

Holland is famous for windmills, wooden shoes and tulips. The love and appreciation of tulips by the Dutch has endured for more than 400 years. Originally a native of the central asiatic Himalayas, tulips have become a national symbol for the country since their introduction in 1593.

More than 23,000 acres of tulip bulbs are planted each year by the bulb farmers of Holland. Approximately 3 billion bulbs are produced per year. Two-thirds of the bulbs are exported. The United States imports nearly 1 billion tulip bulbs, making us the No. 1 importer, with Japan and Germany following.

In 1593, botanist Carolus Clusius, famous for his research on medicinal herbs, was hired to work at the University of Leiden in Holland. When he left Vienna, he carried with him his collection of tulips along with other special plants.

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Clusius was the new head botanist or &uot;hortulanus&uot; of the university’s newly created botanical garden or &uot;hortus.&uot; This was the first botanical garden in western Europe. Behind a building at the university, Clusius started a small garden and planted his tulips and thus introduced the tulip to Holland.

The tulip planting was strictly for scientific research and personal pleasure according to Clusius. However, as word spread of this new plant’s stunning beauty, many people became interested in the bulbs for pecuniary reasons. However, Clusius was extremely protective of his tulips and would not share, barter, or accept money for his precious bulbs.

Desperate to get their hands on the tulip bulbs, a group of embittered bulb buyers made a surprise visit to the garden, and successfully managed to steal a portion of Clusius’ small collection. Horticultural canniness combined with simple burglary yielded the Dutch tulip industry, making the bulbs a &uot;flower force&uot; throughout the world.

During the 17th century, tulip cultivation was concentrated between the North Sea and Amsterdam. These regions were bordered by the affluent cities of Haarlem and Leiden. Today, this region is still known as &uot;Bollenstreek&uot; or the bulb growing province.

At first, tulips were so exclusive that only the most affluent could enjoy them. The rare and beautiful flowers captivated Dutch and European aristocracy and soon became a status symbol among the upper class.

Extravagant prices for bulbs during this craze are difficult to comprehend today. In 1624, a single bulb of a white and maroon &uot;Rembrandt-type&uot; tulip named ‘Semper Augustus’ would sell for 3,000 guilders.That’s about $1,500 U.S. dollars today. Soon after, it was noted that a similar bulb fetched 4,500 guilders plus a horse and carriage.

The Puritans argued that the deleterious trading and collecting mania by these &uot;florists&uot; or &uot;bloomists&uot; was dangerous and those involved in such activities were fools. Undeterred, the people with &uot;tulip disease&uot; continued their pursuits and the disease spread. The craze reached a peak during 1634 to 1637, known as &uot;The Wild Tulip Speculation,&uot; &uot;The Foolish Tulip Trade&uot; and most commonly called &uot;Tulipo mania.&uot;

In the 1620s, rare tulip bulbs were sold individually. It was not until 1634 when the trade standard was changed to selling by weight. The unit chosen was the grain (4.8 centigrams), the same measure that goldsmiths used.

At this time, the 3,000 guilders it cost to buy a single tulip could also buy either five swine, 12 sheep, four oxen, 1,000 pounds of cheese or two tons of butter.

In 1637, the tulip trade crashed leaving people that were very prosperous in penniless.

Today, the tulip continues to be one of the most popular garden flowers. Presently, the tulip growers of Holland are breeding extraordinary varieties in amazing colors suitable for container plantings and flower beds alike.

In the Miss-Lou, the tulip planting window is between Christmas and the middle of January. If you would like to be part of horticulture history and create your own version of the tulip craze, now is the time to get the bulbs in the ground.

Plant tulips in full sun at a depth about three times as deep as they are wide and between 3 to 8 inches apart depending on the size. A well-drained soil is essential. Tulips usually perform as annuals this far south. Depending upon variety, planting date, and weather, tulips will bloom sometime in early spring.

Mass plantings are beautiful in combination with low growing annuals such as sweet alyssum, pansies, violas, or even ryegrass.

Perennial pinks such as ‘Bath’s Pink&uot; dianthus are also fabulous combined with tulips. Set bulbs out in small groups along pathways, in pots on a patio or terrace for close-up viewing, or in rock gardens.

Tulips, like most plants, have an interesting history. Many people fail to utilize tulips in the landscape.

Often, they don’t think about them until they see them bloom in the spring and then it is too late to plant.

Another excuse is that they cost a lot of money.

However, the price of tulips has come down a guilder or two since the 1600s.

Gardening Miss-Lou Style is a weekly column written by Traci Maier of Natchez. Please send your comments and questions to Gardening Miss-Lou Style, c/o The Natchez Democrat, 503 N. Canal St., Natchez, Miss., 39120 or by e-mail to ratmaier@iamerica.net.