tulip

The first financial bubble on written record occurred in the Netherlands in the 17th century, as Tulipmania swept over Holland.  During the peak of speculation, a single tulip bulb cost more than an average home.  Bulbs for “broken” tulips, like Semper Augustus and the Viceroy,  were very hot commodities and went for a fortune. A broken tulip had a striking pop of color that contrasted the base hue of the flower’s petals.  The color break was caused by a mosaic virus (of all things), spread by myzus persicae, a type of aphid.  The infection weakened the bulb and slowed the plant’s propagation.  This is why varieties like Semper Augustus and the Viceroy no longer exist. When an outbreak of the plague prevented a bulb auction, a cascading effect of other cancellations rippled outward, which eventually lead to a collapse in the market in Holland.  Many tulip traders went bankrupt.

“…any tulip thus changing its original colour is usually ruined afterwards and so wanted only to delight its master’s eyes with this variety of colours before dying, as if to bid him a last farewell.” 

–Carlus Clusius, Botanist

Today,  the tulips that have a broken effect are cultivated without the virus. These flowers are known a “Rembrandt tulips,” after the artist.  You can see a broken tulip in Rembrandt’s portrait of his wife painted as Flora, the Roman goddess of Spring and flowers.

I was inspired to plant the orange lovelies pictured above late last November after reading Michael Pollan’s chapter “The Tulip” in his book The Botany of Desire.  As Pollan put it:

“…the wayward color loosed on a tulip by a good break perfected the flower, even as the virus responsible set about destroying it.”

–Michael Pollan