The new mania for historic tulips
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
In February 1637, at the peak of tulip mania, a single bulb of the red-and-white-striped Semper Augustus was valued at 10,000 guilders. It was the equivalent of more than 30 years’ wages for the average Amsterdam bricklayer. Almost three centuries later, it was discovered that the “breaking” colours that so beguiled the Dutch (where two hues appear to bleed into one another) were caused by a virus that ultimately weakened the plant. But for the wealthy merchant classes in 17th-century Holland, the tulip was for a few years at least the ultimate status symbol.
The bulb’s glory years ended with a catastrophic crash (those dizzying prices fuelled a speculative market with increasingly inflated prices that led to an inevitable collapse). But in its wake came a boom of tulip breeding through the 18th and 19th centuries – and now those heritage varieties, and some of their distant forebears, are being sought out by fervent enthusiasts.
Although many of these bulbs are more accessible (at about €5-€8 a pop, they are still 20 times the price of a modern bulb), they remain in short supply. At Old House Gardens, a specialist heritage-bulb supplier in Ann Arbor, Michigan, sales of favourite tulip varieties such as Columbine ($12.50) – a delicious swirl of raspberry pink and mauve – are limited to five bulbs per order. And at Hortus Bulborum, a foundation set up in the Netherlands to preserve more than 4,000 cultivars of spring bulbs dating from the 16th century, a selection of nine Rembrandt bulbs is available for €34.95, but only in specific combinations.
“I hadn’t seen anything so rarefied before,” says specialist grower Polly Nicholson of Bayntun Flowers of the moment she was first gripped by historic tulips on a visit to Hortus Bulborum. She now holds the National Collection of Historic Tulips (awarded by Plant Heritage) at her home, Blackland House in Wiltshire, where everything is grown organically and which she describes as a “protection league for bulbs”. Next year, after a decade of building up her stocks, she will start selling a selection of varieties starting at £5-£6 per bulb.
For Nicholson, who is working on a book for Phaidon due out next spring, newer cultivars (even the flamboyant red and white parrot Estella Rijnveld) cannot compete with the luminous beauty of the historic varieties. “They lack the delicacy and intensity of the real old broken tulips,” she says of the newer varieties. Of the heritage flowers, she adds: “The distinctiveness of these see unpredictable feathers and flames formed when the flower’s outer layer of colour breaks to become darker.”
They are truly beguiling. The rich mahogany petals of Absalon (dating back to 1780) are contrasted with custard-yellow feathering; the pointed petals of Silver Standard (1760) are streaked with a raspberry-ripple red and white. The oldest in her collection is the diminutive but devilishly hued Duc van Tol Red and Yellow, which dates to 1595 (packs of 15 bulbs are also available from Hortus Bulborum for €29.95).
But there’s another side to Nicholson’s collection – English Florists’ tulips, which have been grown since the 17th century. This specialism is, she says, “pure hobby at its most extreme” and, in the UK, culminates in exhibiting in May at the Wakefield & North of England Tulip Society. “The bulbs do not change hands for money,” says Nicholson. “They are priceless.”
These historic flowers have colours so intense they almost defy description. Insulinde (1914) has a creamy-yellow base flushed with violet and mauve feathers. The papery petals of Je Maintiendrai (1963) segue from beetroot purple and violet through to caramel and burnt orange. Jupiter (1913) has madder-red petals with copper edges, like sun-faded silk gowns. But there are also sultry browns: Prince of Wales (1863) is a glossy purple brown; James Wild (1860) an intense rust brown with a yellow base. Dom Pedro (1911), a deep metallic burgundy, is one of the few cultivars available to buy commercially, from Middlesex dealer Jacques Amand (£7.50).
“I am passionate, perhaps to the point of mild obsession, about them,” says Yorkshire-based floral designer and fellow society member Sarah Statham. “Each one has unique markings that mesmerise. I also love the way the light falls through them, highlighting different colours at different times of the day.” In her cutting garden, the heritage bulbs get special treatment: planted in the best soil, on layers of grit, properly labelled, well spaced and protected from predators.
Floral designer Shane Connolly first discovered these special cultivars as an apprentice at florists Pulbrook & Gould in the ’80s. “Everything was seasonal or the most unusual variety you could get,” he says recalling the striped, fringed and baroque tulips they worked with. “They were so rare and exquisitely beautiful.”
For growers, heritage tulips are treasures to be nurtured. Planted in their hundreds or even thousands, modern hybrids are generally composted at the end of the season as they rarely flower as well for a second year. Historic tulips tend to be more perennial, but growers will lift bulbs and store them to replant the following autumn – a far more sustainable, if time-consuming, way to grow the flowers.
For Connolly, displaying these flowers as a single stem in a single vase (or old beer bottles, as is the tradition in Wakefield) is the best way to admire their beauty. Unlike any other flower, the tulip has a mind of its own in the vase. Over days it continues to grow – drooping, winding itself into new positions, its petals opening and reflexing and often changing colour. On the cusp of death, it unleashes a final triumphant display, a glorious swansong – this is when the tulip is at its most dazzling. “It’s the only flower I can think of that’s really in charge,” adds Connolly. “And that’s just how I like it.”
Photographer Kreetta Järvenpää’s contemporary interpretations of the floral paintings of the Dutch Golden Age will be exhibited (along with the paintings of Heikki Marila) later this year in Flora Favola at the Art Museum Poikilo, Kouvola, Finland (21 September–7 January 2024)