A brief history of tulips a.k.a. tulpen

A brief history of tulips a.k.a. tulpen

You can’t visit the Netherlands without coming across a tulip - they’re everywhere! With more than 7 million bulbs planted at the Keukenhof each year, it is clear that the Dutch like their tulips.

Whilst the tulip is pretty much the symbol for the Netherlands, is it actually Dutch?

What are tulips?

Tulip is the common name given to plants which form the Tulipa genus of perennial bulbous spring-blooming plants belonging to the Liliaceae family. There are about 100 species in this genus and thousands of varieties.

The tulip needs a cold winter to bloom, something the Netherlands most definitely has. Once the flowers have bloomed, they expire and revert back to their underground bulb. The flower of the tulip is usually brightly coloured, bell or star-shaped and incredibly symmetrical.

When were tulips discovered?

Tulips were originally discovered in the Ottoman Empire, current day Turkey. However, the Empire extended along a stretch that reached from Turkey to Central Asia. Cultivation of tulips likely began in this region in the 10th century.

It is not clear who first introduced tulips to Europe, but it was not until the 16th century that they began to be imported to the Netherlands. Carolus Clusius played a major role in the spread of tulips during the 16th century, as he planted them in the Vienna Imperial Botanical Gardens before finishing his book on them in 1592, which ignited the people’s love for tulips.

Tulips as a currency

Shortly after authoring his book on tulips, Carolus began working at Leiden University and planted both a teaching garden and his own private garden. Unfortunately, as the bulbs became popular, the garden was subject to raids.

Tulips became a symbol of status in the 17th century and the varieties, which were infected by a tulip-specific disease, were sought-after, as the disease caused bright colours, lines and flames on the petals of the flower. During this time, special breeds of tulip were even named after Dutch naval admirals.

This was the start of tulip mania, which caused an economic bubble and was particularly prevalent in 1634 to 1637 AD. In this period, the demand for tulips was so high that people started using them as currency.

Tulip bulbs sold for great amounts of money, with people even selling horses and carriages just to obtain a bulb. Tulip mania came to an end in 1637 and the Dutch government issued a decree stating that tulips had to be bought and sold in cash, also meaning that they could not be used as a collateral for loans from Dutch banks.

Tulips today

Today, tulips can be bought for a reasonable price, you no longer have to sell your house to get your hands on one. They are still hugely popular in the Netherlands and are celebrated in festivals and gardens that you can visit.

The Dutch have also taken over in terms of trade, producing 2 billion flower bulbs in 2017. It is therefore not surprising that 77 percent of flower bulbs traded worldwide come from the Netherlands, 40 percent being tulips.


Mina Solanki


Mina Solanki

Completed her Master's degree at the University of Groningen and worked as a translator before joining IamExpat. She loves to read and has a particular interest in Greek mythology. In...

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