It’s that time of year they call the awards season, from the Golden Globes, to the Baftas, all the way to the Oscars (4th March), big televised ceremonies celebrating the industry and the best work of the big screen. For some weeks now the “stars” have been out in force; dressed up to the nines, parading on the red carpet, patting each other on the back.
For the actors, I’m sure winning a gong feels rather good, a nice affirmation of your talent and a huge amount of reputation-enhancing recognition. But of course these awards were invented for a reason, to market the film Industry (and by association luxury fashion brands) – with pomp and splendour and glamour, just like the pageantry once associated with the European royal courts of the Middle Ages. The Oscars, in particular, showing off to the world, the regality of these 21st century idols.
Status, wealth and pleasure are also associated with the early Spring flower, the Tulip. It’s easy for us to dismiss this supermarket staple, nearly as naff as the carnation for it’s ubiquitousness but historically the Tulip has high-standing, and like the most beautiful screen sirens, has been the subject of much lust.
The tulip; elegant, mysterious, mystical. Tall and graceful, a goblet-shaped head (in many captivating colours) on shapely green stems. Close cupped petals, from structured and simple to ornately frilly, both alluring and seductive. The morning sun’s adulation causes the flower to open and bloom, the cool air of the evening for them to close – offering sanctuary and nectar to sleepy bee pollinators inside their mysterious interior.
Highly desired for centuries, the tulip (like a modern day screen goddess) has bought many an ardent admirer to their knees.
This adoration began in the Sultanate courts of Constantinople (Istanbul). The Tulip, native to the mountainous regions of Turkey and further east into Central Asia, became regarded as the emodiment of perfection. Grown in the gardens and parks of the 16th century Sultans the flower became associated with the high status of the kings. Sultan Ahmed III (1718-30), so enthralled with the tulip his reign was known as the “Tulip era”, held annual tulip festivals (for which everyone had to dress in the colour of the blooms). Today you can see the tulip motif still in the most sacred of Turkish buildings, the Blue Mosque. Here the tulip is proliferate – in the tiles on the walls, in the pattern of the carpets, in the shape of the dome. A single flower rising from a single bulb, the tulip (lale in Turkish, attributed to allah) was said to represent the oneness of God – a most sacred icon. Pious Muslims wore tulips in their turbans.
But there’s another side to the Tulip – promisciousness and pleasure. An exotica that has probably ensured their longevity. The Turks were the first to realize that by being planted close tighter, tulips easily and quickly cross-pollinated. Then they realized they could influence the process to create an astonishing range of hybrids (in both colour and shape) – and so created the billion pound tulip industry.
As a show of wealth and standing the Sultans presented tulip bulbs to European royalty . But it’s said that the European craving for tulips was begun by Carolus Clusius (Charles de l’Écluse), a French scholar and botanist, who came across the bulbs in the court of the Austrian Emperor. In 1593, he was appointed “Hortulanus”, the contemporary title for head botanist, at the University of Leiden’s now famous “Hortus”, the first botanical garden in Western Europe. Clusius was mostly interested in the tulip’s scientific importance, probably hoping to find medicinal uses for the bulbs. But beautiful botanical drawings of tulips began appearing in Europe, so beautiful, in fact, that they gained wide notice.
This one, Tulipa bononiensis, became very famous.
Others showed the “flamed” tulips that were very exotic to the Europeans, and interest in these “new flowers” continued to grow. Clusius played it clever, he was very secretive and protective with his bulbs, making them even more highly desirable. Stoked by the hype and so determined now were some to have them, bulbs were stolen from the Leiden gardens. And so began “Tulipomania.”
Through the early 1600’s the price of a tulip bulb began to increase and then as the hybrids became more and more glamorous, the price skyrocketed. The limited supply of certain bulbs became highly prized by the rich, who ultimately, were willing to pay almost any price. By 1624, one tulip type, with only 12 bulbs available, was selling for 3000 guilders per bulb, the equivalent ot about £1200 today.
During the 1630s, the frenzy continued as notarized bills of sale were being issued for bulbs, fraud and speculation were rampant, and what always happens with financial “bubbles” happened. The crash came in 1637 and many rich traders lost their fortunes overnight. An event ripe for satire by artists of the time.
But the Tulip growers knew, like many Hollywood moguls know, where there is beauty there is gold. And the enterprising Dutch never gave up. Today they have built one of the best organized production and export businesses in the world (just like the Hollywood film moguls) . Today, over 9 billion flower bulbs are produced each year in Holland, and about 7 billion of them are exported – and interestingly America is the biggest importer of Dutch bulbs.
Tulips bloom in gardens from early to late Spring, when cut though they are not very long-lasting but like some Hollywood stars, there’s a little known thing about tulips, they often look more interesting with age.
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