Monday, April 13, 2009

Tulipmania lives

When the 17th century Dutch elite became enthralled with flowers in a time notoriously known as Tulipmania, the most sought-after and expensive tulips were infected with bugs and viruses.

The attraction to “Broken Tulips” was its magnificent mutations of color, form and size. Pedals seemingly dipped in porcelain, laced with spring hues, edges frayed and feathered – Broken Tulips were a representation of Golden Age novelty and exotic discovery.

“The tulip was grown about the elite group like a toy among the rich,” says Sjoerd van Eeden, co-owner of the Amsterdam Tulip Museum. “It was after Tulipmania where tulips then became in the hands of farmers.”

Tulipmania's peak in February of 1637 was a frenzied swirl of contract agreements and market exchange, seen in retrospect as folly-ridden senselessness. One Viceroy tulip bulb sold for four tons of beer, while one Sempur Agustus bulb for 12 acres of land. Ten years later, Dutch historian Theodorus Schrevelius would write, “Our descendants will laugh at the human insanity of our age, in times tulip flowers have been so revered.”

About 300 years later, in 1949, ten prominent Dutch bulb growers and exporters opened the first nonprofit showcase for The Netherlands flower industry near a castle garden just outside of Lisse. No more than 35,000 visitors were expected at the new attraction, fittingly titled Keukenhof from the land’s previous use as an herb garden and hunting ground. Opening year visitor totals topped an unpredictable 250,000.

“It was a way to ask foreign business people to come and buy bulbs from Holland,” says Keukenhof’s General Manager Piet de Vries. “It was overwhelming at the time. We had no toilets, maybe one for the growers. We had no restaurants. At the time we just weren't prepared.”

As Keukenhof celebrates its 60th anniversary on March 19, the world’s largest flower garden will have attracted more than 44 million visitors since its conception, offering 150 acres of land hosting 4.5 million tulips in 100 varieties, 7 million flower bulbs in total plus 2,500 trees.

“We are the show window for the Netherlands and for Dutch bulb growers in the industry,” says De Vries, who currently works with 93 growers around the country whom supply Keukenhof with flowers free-of-charge. “We have prominent growers and growers with special varieties. We have a long list of people who want to show here.”

Keukenhof itself is considered a national landmark, but the Dutch tulip industry today holds its own international fame. Boasting a market share of around 70 percent in universal flower production and 90 percent of trade worth about €540 million, it is estimated that there exists well over a thousand growers in the country who work at a national and global level.

“To say we are working together goes too far,” says Van Eeden, who was raised amongst a family of international bulb exporters. “One person grows red tulips while the other person grows yellow tulips. We're competitors, yet countries who demand tulips can be large enough to buy from fifty exporters.”

Nearly one quarter (over 900 million) of Netherlands flower exports are destined for the United States each year.

Tulips carry an economically nomadic disposition throughout its history. The flower’s native landscape is the Himalayan region, filling valleys with over 60 percent of today’s wild tulips.

“The Ottoman empire, with its huge trade route area, was the first thought to have collected wild tulips. It caught on, hybridizing began, and the tulip became a garden flower because of Turkey,” says Van Eeden.

The tulip’s introduction to The Netherlands is believed to be the work of Flemish botanist Clusius, Latin for Charles de L’Ecluse, who first planted tulips at the University of Leiden’s botanical gardens around 1595. Interest rose among wealthy Dutch enthusiasts, and tulip demand eventually ignited the world’s first stock market exchange.

“Holland was already the economic center in Europe with money. The Dutch were prepared and had the means to finance a curiosity with tulips,” says Van Eeden. “People from the lower classes also looked at the tulip as an opportunity for investment and profit.”

“There was a tulip mania. There were flower bulbs calculated for two thousand euros per bulb,” says De Vries. “At the end of tulip mania we had the first stock crash that we've seen, because of flowers.”

The stock crash of 1637 is argued to be the first recorded economic or speculative bubble burst of its kind. Traders went from monthly earnings of roughly €30,000 to a total loss in weeks.

“There was a lot of money going around, it was early capitalism, and then this crazy spinning out of control took place. Many people were burned and fell out,” says Van Eeden. “But people love that story.”

Research on documented economic devastation launched by the tulip market crash shows considerable exaggeration to the story. Tulip obsession since the crash, however, has anything but vanished.

In 2007, The Netherlands exported 4 billion flower bulbs worldwide. Keukenhof’s eight-week window of floral spectacle estimates a reel-in of 800,000 visitors, more than half from abroad. The 15 floating stands at Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt offer “groene vinger” customers buckets of flower bulbs regardless of the flower season.

“Buying tulip bulbs right now is impossible, yet there are thousands at markets. Sellers will tell you at the flower market to wait until the fall, but it will never bloom,” says Van Eeden. “The Dutch market is a bit messy. Anyone can go to a grower, get some bulbs and sell them in the street.”

Hybridization in the past centuries has led to over 5,000 garden varieties, and about 50 new types are expected this year. One of this year’s attractions at Keukenhof is a section of tulips named after celebrities from Hillary Clinton to Sponge Bob.

“We have people who work here all year, preparing, planting, making the grass trimmed like a golf course, making everything look perfect for those eight weeks we are open,” says a Keukenhof employee. “Everything is planned, but we can’t predict Mother Nature.”

A desperate tourist will shuffle around Amsterdam’s Tulip Museum, exiting with lost hopes of tulip purchasing and settling for painted wooden replicas. The tourist will breeze in and out of the world’s largest tulip field, marveling enough to deem Keukenhof the most photographed place on earth. As a frantic attempt to reward their home garden with Dutch novelty, the confused tourist will reconsider a handful of out-of-season tulip bulbs at the bloementmarkt.

"We travel a lot to all the famous tulip parks all over the world, and we are very open because we do not have any competition. The biggest risk for Keukenhof is if there are no tourists traveling, but people are still traveling,” says De Vries.

It is argued that the documented “human insanity” of tulips died with Tulipmania. Perhaps the overwhelming social fandom for flowers followed suit with its cherished Broken tulips, and has simply just altered its form.

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