Excuse me, what’s that flower? We hear this question every day at this time of year. You may not recognize it. It’s your old friend the tulip.
These are species tulips, which look very different than their larger Dutch cousins, the hybridized garden tulips. They are smaller by one-third to one-half, and their foliage is often finer. Also referred to as botanical tulips or wild tulips, they are less susceptible to pests and diseases. Your fancy tulip cultivars may provide flash but are short-lived. You will generally have to replant annually. Species tulips, on the other hand, are true perennials – they return every year, and many will naturalize.
Taxonomists believe that species tulips or botanical tulips come from the arid corner of the world where Tibet, Russia, and Afghanistan meet. They began to spread westward naturally to the Caspian Sea, Black Sea coast, and through the Caucasus. When Turkish nomads came upon flowers blooming in such a barren landscape, the tulip became much revered, representing life and fertility, a herald of spring. Ottomans elevated the tulip to a position of eminence. To guard themselves against misfortune they carried tulips into battle. It is uncertain when tulips were first cultivated, but we do know tulips arrived in Europe via the Turks in the Middle Ages.
We often think of tulips as a product of Holland, but they did not arrive in the Netherlands until the late 1500s. Westerners visiting amazing gardens in Istanbul began shipping bulbs and seeds all over Europe. Carolus Clusius, the most important botanist of his day, began a classification system to evaluate tulips. It is thanks to his work that we know so much about the early history of the tulip.
In the Dutch Golden Age tulips became a status symbol of wealth and good taste. Some bulbs were so coveted they were worth 100 times their weight in gold. A single bulb sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a craftsman. A house in Hoorn was sold for three rare tulip bulbs. This is the first time tulips were used as currency. A futures market developed. Trade escalated wildly and suddenly collapsed. Many investors were ruined. These events became known as "Tulipomania." It is generally considered to be the first economic bubble.
The subtle grace and beauty of the species tulip is undeniable. You can find numerous varieties throughout the High Line, including the lovely Tulipa sylvestris at 10th Avenue Square.
For more fascinating history on the tulip, read Tulipomania by Mike Dash.