Lots of flowers in today's post. This is partly because I'm mourning the change of season; the autumnal weather has kicked in with a vengeance, but the autumnal colours haven't yet turned up to compensate (that sound you hear, incidentally, is Esther grinding her teeth at my unrepentant springophilia ;-p). Partly because it seems only appropriate, when discussing The Tulip (2000), by Anna Pavord, to adorn Alexandria with some illustrations...
A reduced paperback edition of the 1999 original, The Tulip is a fulsome celebration of "a flower that has made men mad". Pavord traces the tulip's progress across centuries and continents, examining the flower's intoxicating impact in milieux as far removed as the 16th-century Ottoman court and the industrial towns of late-19th-century northern England (from Istanbul to Stalybridge, oh yes!).
The first signs of the tulip's peculiar popularity appear in Persian poetry, as far back as the thirteenth century (one line quoted herein - frustratingly, without an attribution - runs, "The flames in our fireplaces are the tulip gardens of winter"). The Turks, in particular, were big fans, whether painting or cultivating them. Europeans caught the bug, and carried it back west, most notably to Holland and France, where it sparked the singularly odd phenomenon since named 'Tulipomania' - the frantic buying and selling of tulip bulbs for outlandish, impossible sums of money, creating a speculation bubble in which a single bulb of an especially prized variety could fetch more than the cost of a well-appointed town house. In the Dutch Republic, for example:
By 1623 the fabled flower 'Semper Augustus' was already selling for 1,000 florins a bulb (the average annual income was about 150 florins). [...] In 1624 only twelve bulbs of the variety were known to exist, valued at 1,200 florins each; by 1625 the asking price had more than doubled. By 1633 though, estimates of 5,500 florins were floating around each bulb, almost doubling to 10,000 florins at the height of tulipomania.
When the bubble burst, it did so spectacularly, leaving hordes of tulip fanciers completely destitute. But why such fuss over a simple flower? At first, it was a fairly simple case of a rare commodity (first imported, later grown on home soil) becoming fashionable - in a society, moreover, enjoying a period of unaccustomed prosperity - thus enabling cultivators to make a profit. As demand outstripped supply, the possibility of profit attracted non-cultivators, and prices were driven higher by repeated reselling, all with the confidence that prices would continue to rise. So far, so housing market.
The extra frisson in all this, however, was an inexplicable phenomenon known as 'breaking', whereby individual tulip bulbs would, without warning or any apparent rhyme or reason, produce flowers whose petals were feathered with contrasting colours (as in the pictures here). The trait could not be bred, nor predicted; no-one knew why, in a given season, a previously-normal bulb would abruptly 'break'. Collectors went wild for such flowers, precisely for the rarity and randomness of their emergence; and a 'broken' bulb could, consequently, fetch an enormously high price. It was this game of chance - the knowledge that any bulb one bought might turn out to be worth its weight in gold (but also might not) - that drove speculation to such extortionate levels.
(Not until the twentieth century was it discovered that breaking was caused by a virus attacking bulbs in the ground. By far the prettiest side-effect of a virus I've ever seen...)
The Dutch manifestation is well known, but France had its bout of own tulip madness in the seventeenth century:
A thriving brewery, worth 30,000 francs, was handed over to one grower as the price for a single bulb of the modish variety 'Tulipe Brasserie'. In 1608, a miller exchanged his mill for a bulb of 'Mère Brune'. [...] No woman of fashion stepped on to the street without a posy of rare tulips, the flowers worn like jewels in her decollatage.
Pavord's book is a very unusual one, but it is lively and utterly absorbing, overflowing with infectious love for its subject. It is also, importantly, liberally strewn with the words of generations of tulip enthusiasts, and colourful plates of the artistic devotion this strange flower inspired; Pavord is always careful to contextualise responses to the flower, making it a fine blend of botany and social history (I gather that the larger version of this book is heavier on the former, which I suspect would have enchanted me rather less). If I have one reservation, it is the author's repeated tendency to anthropomorphise the plant, which tends to lead her into overdramatic and purple prose (what need, when the story itself is dramatic enough?). Still, it's hard to begrudge her evident passion:
Millenia had passed on this slope, while the tulip, wild as the wolf, slowly, joyously had evolved and regenerated itself. Even now, in their dark underground grottoes beneath the rocks, the tulips were plotting new feats, re-inventing themselves in ways that we could never dream of.