The birth of a flower trade – tulips, Turkey and the Netherlands


There’s one man whose work stands out in helping to establish the tulip as a popular plant in the gardens northern Europe. Carolus Clusius is largely credited with introducing the tulip into cultivation in the Netherlands, the country now synonymous with this elegant flower.

Carolus Clusius was a sixteenth century physician and botanist. As a young man, he studied law, then later medicine. His interest in plants was perhaps sparked by his medical training. At the time botany was considered to be a branch of medicine, and plants were largely studied for their medicinal value. Clusius however was interested in plants for their beauty and diversity too. He travelled widely in Europe and wrote about the plants he came across, publishing books with detailed descriptions of the flora of Spain and Portugal, and Austria and Hungary.

The first tulips to arrive in the Netherlands are thought to have come in a consignment of cloth, sent to a merchant in Antwerp in about 1562. The plants are native to western and central Asia, but had been taken to other parts of the world by travellers and traders, and were especially favoured in Turkey. The shipment of fabric from Constantinople contained a number of bulbs. They were unfamiliar to the merchant, and he assumed they were some kind of Turkish onion. Some of the bulbs were duly cooked and served, dressed with oil and vinegar. Fortunately for the merchant, tulip bulbs are edible. In fact they must have tasted pretty good, because (even more fortunately for gardeners and florists) there were a number of bulbs left over, and these the merchant planted in his garden in the hope of producing a further crop. The following spring, the bright flowers of these ‘Turkish onions’ attracted the attention of Joris Rye, a prominent horticulturalist and friend of the cloth merchant. He took the remaining bulbs back to his own garden, where they flowered and thrived. Rye began sharing the bulbs with other plant loving friends, and contacted Carolus Clusius to tell him about these beautiful and rare flowers. At the time Clusius was travelling in Spain, and it may have been some years before he was able to see tulips growing in the Netherlands.

In 1573 Clusius was invited to Vienna and asked to establish a botanic garden for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II. He struck up a friendship with Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the ambassador at the Court of Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople. Busbecq shared Clusius’ passion for plants, and would regularly send parcels of seed and bulbs back to Vienna. Among these were tulips, which had already become an established favourite in the gardens of the Ottoman Empire.

Work on the garden in Vienna was dogged by delays and, after the death of Emperor Maximillian II, interest in maintaining the garden was lost. In 1594, Clusius moved to Leiden to take up post as honorary professor of botany at the University there. Over the years he had been experimenting with cross breeding tulips, and was able to establish his collection at the botanical gardens in Leiden. The plants thrived in the Dutch climate and their popularity began to grow. Clusius carefully documented his tulips, and wrote of his observations of tulips “breaking” – the viral disease which causes streaks of colour in the flowers, and which would play a major role in ‘tulipomania’ in the years to come, pushing the price of a single tulip bulb to extreme heights.

Building on the work Clusius carried out in the late sixteenth century, breeders have now developed over 3,000 varieties of tulip, and the Netherlands has long been established as the main source of both bulbs and cut flowers. It’s hard to imagine spring without tulips but, largely thanks to Clusius we can enjoy these beautiful flowers in our homes and gardens every year.

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