Book Review: The Tulip, by Anna Pavord

The Tulip is a fascinating history of the relationship between people and this enchanting spring flower. In very different places and times, many have been obsessed with tulips, due in part to their enormous and irrepressible bundle of genetic variability, capable of all sorts of surprising tricks with color, shape, and habit. And people have used that variability to create a massive number hybrids and varieties, changing the appearance of this flower in basic ways.

the tulip 2

You would not necessarily guess this from the mass tulip plantings of today, meant to dazzle with broad swaths of color. But according to Pavord, tulips have been used in this way only since the late 19th century.

Tulips as wildflowers were native to an area stretching from Central Asia to the Balkans. The Persians and Turkic peoples appreciated tulips as a cultivated flower long before Europeans. Babur, founder of the Moghul Empire, planted gardens with tulips throughout the lands he conquered.

Ottoman Turks brought their love of tulips westward with them as they conquered Byzantium. And from the Ottoman Empire, in what is now Turkey, 16th Century European envoys sent back the first bulbs to reach western and northern Europe.

In addition to their variability, there is a special silkiness of texture and clarity of color that has no doubt been captivating to Moghuls and Ottomans, Dutch and English.

(Incidentally, the name tulip is the result of a misunderstanding. When Western Europeans asked about the flower that Ottomans commonly wore in their head gear, their hosts thought they were asking about the turbans, called tulpan. The word for tulip was actually lale.)

Tulips have inspired a number of speculative booms and busts. The Dutch tulipomania was the most famous and caused the greatest financial losses, but others occurred in France, the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere. At the height of the Dutch mania, a single tulip bulb was sold for the price of a fashionable Amsterdam home.

Among the Ottomans, Ahmed III (1703-1730) presided over what was known as the Tulip Era. Ultimately, the cost of his tulip obsession contributed to his downfall. Before that happened, however, he had some great parties during which candles were affixed to tortoises, who were then set loose to crawl around the gardens, illuminating the Sultan’s tulips in the dark of night.

It took a while for tulips to catch on in Europe. The first shipment of tulip bulbs to Antwerp, mistaken for onions, were boiled and eaten with oil and vinegar. This was in 1562. However, within a short time tulips were a status symbol par excellence for French, Flemish, Dutch, German, and English aristocrats. Upwardly striving merchants who couldn’t afford bulbs of their own could buy paintings of tulips by Breughel for less than the cost of the flowers themselves.

Eventually tulips became more common and lost some of their fascination for the ruling classes. Tulip enthusiasts, known as “florists”, stepped into the breach in Flanders, Holland, England and elsewhere. These amateur tulip breeders – many of them artisans – developed thousands of varieties, which were combined with the varieties developed by commercial growers. In England the tulip florists had thriving local societies, competitions, and annual feasts. Sadly the societies went into decline after the middle of the 19th Century.

Tulips at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Tulips at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Tulip breeders, whether Ottoman or English, developed extremely exacting standards for what made a beautiful tulip. Those standards were detailed but exceedingly different from place to place. For example, Ottomans valued long pointed tepals shaped like daggers, while most Europeans wanted the tepals to be rounded. What was similar was their view of the tulip as a single specimen to be closely examined, inside and out. What’s more, single color tulips were regarded as “breeders”, useful only as raw material for developing tulips where colors mixed with what was known as “feathering” or “flames”.

It was the Dutch who in the 19th Century pioneered mass tulip plantings that created collective sweeps of color. By the prior century they had established dominance over the tulip trade. They were not the most exceptional breeders, but they did excel as growers and marketers. In fact, Ahmed III ordered millions of Dutch bulbs from his palace in Istanbul.

There is much more to this book, but let me just say that The Tulip is a wonderful read for anyone interested in flowers or history. Pavord is an engaging and entertaining writer, and she knows her stuff. I have just one complaint: when she quotes something from the French, she doesn’t bother to translate. This is pretentious and annoying. But this one defect is not enough to keep me from strongly recommending The Tulip.




26 Comments on “Book Review: The Tulip, by Anna Pavord”

  1. How interesting….. I had no idea that the tulip originated from Central Asia! You learn something new everyday! I would love to look through this one. And that shot of the tulips from the Botanic Garden is the most stunning display of tulips I have seen ….the colors are sensational! A wonderful day to you tomorrow…we got a bit flooded this evening from all the rain!

  2. Hi Jason, I borrowed this book a while ago rather than bought it as I remember a very pricey tag and enjoyed the pictures and a dip into the text, shamefully I did not read the whole book, one to try in the winter maybe, we need more hours in the day this time of year!

  3. A great review Jason. I have read a couple of books by A. Pavord – one was excellent (The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants) and the next was disappointing (The Curious Gardener). This topic interests me, so I’ll give this book a go! Thanks!

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