Late Flowering

That was the end of the tulip mania. When the door of the Ottoman cage slammed shut for the last time on Ahmed III, the flower began to fade from the history books. Its greatest years had passed; never again would it so captivate a king, or enslave half a nation with the promise of easy money. In time people would come to wonder how such a mania could ever have occurred at all.

But if the tulip ceased to be a public craze, it remained a private passion. The collapse of the bulb trade did not end all interest in tulips, even though prices plunged and then remained uniformly low in reaction to the excesses of the Dutch and the Turks. On the contrary, large sums were still demanded for the bulbs of a very few rare and highly regarded varieties.

It took only a year or two for the Dutch bulb trade to regain some sort of equilibrium. The speculators had gone, but there was still a market for the flower; the purchasers were the same patrician collectors who had stayed aloof from the tavern trade, and they continued to value the tulip for purely aesthetic reasons. Even in the summer of 1637, less than six months after prices crashed, a Haarlem connoisseur named Aert Huybertsz. paid 850 guilders for a single bulb of the fine Rosen variety Manassier. Jacques Bertens, the dealer from whom he purchased the tulip, had earlier paid 710 guilders for the flower and thus profited to the tune of 140 guilders, or about six months’ wages for a local artisan.

The fashion among tulip connoisseurs in the postmania years was to cultivate single specimens of as many different tulips as possible. This meant there was still at least a limited demand for many of the most attractive varieties of flower. In an odd way the infamy that the mania had attracted helped too; the whole of Europe had heard of tulips now, and many people wanted to see for themselves the flower that had generated such passions. Dutch florists were thus able to offset their domestic catastrophe by developing an export business. A fair number enjoyed considerable success; indeed the dominance that Holland still enjoys in the international flower trade dates to the first half of the seventeenth century.

This steady business was of inestimable value to the florists, who certainly must have lost a good proportion of their customers to the mania, and from scattered hints it appears that the bulb growers did what they could to keep the supply of the most favored species low. They thus contrived to maintain prices at a decent level for years, cannily resisting the temptation to breed more tulips and risk flooding the limited market that remained.

Comparatively little data concerning the prices paid for tulips has survived for the years after 1637. Peter Mundy, who traveled through the United Provinces in 1640, noted that “incredible prices” were still being paid for what he called “tulip rootes,” without giving examples. But the sort of sums Mundy, a reasonably well-off merchant, would have considered incredible were still far short of those commanded in 1636 and 1637. An Admirael van der Eijck, which sold for an average of about 1,345 guilders per bulb at Alkmaar, went under the hammer for only 220 guilders when another grower’s estate was auctioned off in 1643, and a Rotgans once worth 805 guilders, for only 138. Without knowing the precise weights of the bulbs concerned, it is impossible to say for certain that the sums are truly comparable, but in both these cases prices had fallen to only a sixth of what they had been at the height of the mania—an average annual depreciation of 35 percent.

If the rarities fared badly, then—as might be expected—the cheaper bulbs did considerably worse. They had appreciated late, and only when the stock of more desirable bulbs seemed exhausted; they were too common and too drab to interest the connoisseurs. Witte Croonen—plain White Crowns—that had sold for 64 guilders per half-pound in January 1637 and then rose to the giddy heights of 1,668 guilders the half at Alkmaar, could be had for only 37½ guilders five years later. To reach that low, they had depreciated at a spectacular average of 76 percent per year.

Those sort of prices were not enough to sustain everyone who had dabbled in bulb growing. In the years that followed the mania, the fledgling flower industry contracted, and most of the new and inexperienced growers who had been attracted by the prospect of rich profits gave up the business or were driven out. Tulip breeding retreated quite literally to its roots in the rich sandy soils around Haarlem; indeed, the town now established a total dominance over the bulb trade such as it had never enjoyed when the times were good and everyone was growing tulips. During the reign of Ahmed III, the farms of Haarlem shipped tens of thousands of bulbs to the Ottoman court in Istanbul. The town became so closely associated with the finest flowers that the handful of florists who did base themselves away from the town routinely listed their address as “Near Haarlem” when they sent out catalogs and price lists. They knew their produce would be dismissed as second-rate if they did not.

The trade was much more rational now. The bulbs that did command high prices were taken to auctions, which continued to be held in Haarlem for the remainder of the seventeenth century. The tulips sold at these affairs would have been those of new varieties, recently developed and still rare enough to command a premium. After a few years most of these newcomers would lose their sheen, and the connoisseurs would move on to other novelties. In time the once-fashionable bulbs would become relatively commonplace, and the growers would begin to sell them to callers or via mail order through garden catalogs aimed at more modest purses. It would appear from surviving lists of the extensive bulb purchases made by one German tulipophile—Charles, margrave of Baden-Durlach—that by about 1712 the bulbs available from these catalogs cost only a guilder apiece on average, although a few varieties might command ten, twenty, or even forty guilders a bulb. The number of species and the number of bulbs available by the next century was much greater too. An inventory of the margrave’s collection showed that in 1736 he owned not only 4,796 different varieties of tulip but as many as 80,000 bulbs of a single species.

Preferences had not changed much, and the margrave’s flowers would have been recognizably descendants of the tulips grown during the years of mania. The mosaic virus remained undiscovered, and brightly colored flamed tulips remained highly popular. Indeed, the desiderata applied to the most coveted varieties would have been perfectly familiar to a flower dealer of the 1630s: In 1700 Henrik van Oosting’s The Dutch Gardener noted that the ideal tulip should have “petals that are rounded at the top, and these should not be curled … as for the flames, these must start low, beginning at the base of the Flower and climbing right up the Petal, and ending in the form of a shell at the edge of the flower…. As regards the base, it must be of the finest Sky Blue, and the Stamens should seem to be Black, although they are really of a very dark Blue.” The Dutch Florist, a book by Nicholas van Kampen translated into English in 1763, added that the “properties required of a fine tulip” were a tall stem, a well-proportioned cup, and lively colors, preferably on a background of white.

Even so, no plant, not even the tulip, could hope to remain in fashion forever. Tastes changed; other flowers offered something different. Although the French in the eighteenth century and the English in the nineteenth retained a passion for the flower, the tulip was often relegated to the second rank as other species briefly came into vogue and occasionally generated miniature manias in their own right. *

Perhaps the most striking of these affairs was the hyacinth trade, that grew up in the United Provinces in the first third of the eighteenth century. Like the tulip, the hyacinth was introduced to Western Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century. Clusius knew it and distributed its bulbs, and it was cultivated in the Netherlands in a minor way for several decades without arousing any great passion among flower lovers. Then chance intervened. Over the years growers trying to create new varieties had accidentally produced a few double hyacinths—flowers with twice the usual number of petals. Because these plants did not produce seeds, they were routinely destroyed, and hyacinths occupied a station in the florists’ pantheon below those of the tulip and the carnation. In 1684, however, a Haarlem bulb farmer named Pieter Voorhelm fell ill and was unable to tend his garden for some time. When he recovered and went to dispose of some double hyacinths he had been meaning to get rid of, he discovered that an especially fine double had flowered and that some of his customers wanted to buy it. Not only that—they were willing to pay more for the new flower than they were for the single hyacinths he produced.

Voorhelm continued to grow the new variety, and as demand slowly increased, he bred more doubles. Other growers followed suit, until by about 1720 the hyacinth was definitely in fashion and had quite eclipsed the tulip in popularity.

The craze that ensued bore strong similarities to the tulip mania, and it even ran its course more or less exactly a century after tulips were in vogue. It began slowly and did not reach a peak until 1736, half a century after Voorhelm first grew a double hyacinth. Relatively early on the prices for single bulbs of the most prized species reached thirty or forty guilders, and before the fashion had run its course, the Semper Augustus of the hyacinth years—a double named Koning van Groot Brittannië, in honor of William of Orange—was fetching a thousand guilders a bulb.

Hyacinths were popular for exactly the same reason that tulips had captured the imagination. It took a similarly long time—five years—to produce a flowering bulb, which meant that popular new hyacinths remained rarities for some time. The new varieties were highly variegated, exhibiting endless combinations of color, and so beautiful that one dealer, Egbert van der Vaert, used to boast that if Zeus had only known of his latest acquisition, he would have taken on the form of that hyacinth, rather than a swan, when he descended from Olympus to seduce Leda.

During the 1720s, then, bulb prices began to rise. In one sense this was odd, because the cultivation of bulbs was a considerably more professional business in the eighteenth century than it had been a hundred years earlier, and new varieties of double hyacinth soon began to flood onto the market—a total of two thousand were eventually produced. That might have sated demand and prevented a real mania from developing. But the bulb growers of Haarlem had accumulated a better understanding of their business too and knew they could push their profits up by keeping the supply of the most favored bulbs low.

By 1730 hyacinth prices had reached substantial levels, much to the delight of the florists. The Voorhelm bulb gardens, run now by Pieter’s grandson Joris, remained at the forefront of the trade, but other Haarlem growers also made fortunes from hyacinths. Prices peaked between 1733 and 1736 before falling away steeply in 1737. The reason for the plunge was the same that it had been in 1637: Prices had reached such high levels that the most desirable bulbs became all but unobtainable, and less fancied varieties appreciated to the point where they cost far more than they were worth to any real flower lover. Bulb catalogs published two years after the mania’s peak show that valuable doubles such as the white Staaten Generaal, which had sold for 210 guilders, now fetched only 20; Miroir went from 141 guilders per bulb to 10, Red Granaats fell from 66 guilders to 16, and Gekroont Salomon’s Jewel from 80 all the way down to 3.

From these figures it can be seen that the prices obtained during the hyacinth craze were an order of magnitude less than those of the tulip craze. Staaten Generaal sold for around two hundred guilders, where an Admirael van der Eijck might have fetched nearly two thousand, and the highest prices recorded for double hyacinths, at about sixteen hundred guilders per bulb, were at best only a third as much as the most coveted tulips had fetched a century before. In addition, individual speculators appear to have been a little more cautious than their forebears. The one significant innovation of the hyacinth craze was the practice of buying shares in particularly valuable bulbs, a practice that does not seem to have occurred during the tulip mania. It must have been a frustrating business, in that the shareholders would have to wait a year or more for their flower to produce offsets before they could expect to receive a single bulb of their own, but it was at least a cheap way of buying into hyacinths; one lengthy Dutch poem, Flora’s Bloemwarande, which described the new trade, mentions a florist named Jan Bolt, who sold a half-share in one of his bulbs to a hesitant customer, with only 10 percent down.

There were several reasons why the hyacinth trade never matched the tulip mania in magnitude. To begin with, hyacinths are much more difficult to grow than hardy mountain flowers such as tulips, which limited the number of garden lovers interested in buying them. This in turn meant that demand remained at a lower level than it did during the years of tulip craze; hyacinths attracted much less attention than tulips had done, which kept the number of speculators attracted by the trade to a minimum. Most significantly of all, there is little evidence for any sort of futures trade in hyacinths; there are one or two mentions of bulbs being purchased and then sold to third parties, but nothing more.

Nevertheless, at least a few private enthusiasts in Haarlem and The Hague seem to have been sufficiently caught up in the hyacinth craze to attempt to grow the flowers themselves for profit, and at its peak there was considerable disapproval for the new craze. Memories of the tulip mania evidently remained vivid, for one enterprising publisher reprinted the three Samenspraecken of Gaergoedt and Waermondt, prefacing the dialogues with the comment that the present-day speculators were just as greedy as their ancestors and just as taken in by tawdry deceits of that wily old whore Flora. Others produced new tracts warning against the excesses of the hyacinth trade. With the awful lessons of the tulip mania so fresh in every mind, it might be said that the most remarkable thing about the new craze was that it occurred at all.

The story of the tulip can be brought up to the present day in a very few words. The trade has continued to be dominated and driven forward by Dutch growers. Indeed, for much of the eighteenth century a single group of a dozen Haarlem florists effectively controlled the entire business. Even when their oligopoly was broken during the Napoleonic Wars, the reputation of Dutch farmers remained unparalleled, and as more and more people took up gardening as a hobby and worldwide demand for flowers of all sorts soared, the area around Haarlem given over to the cultivation of bulbs increased too. First farms appeared in Bloemendaal and Overveen, just to the west of the city; then cultivation expanded south toward Hillegom and Lisse on land made available by the draining of the Haarlemmermeer in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was around this time that individual bulb farms expanded in size too, creating the first of the huge tulip fields that have become one of the most popular picture-postcard images of Holland. Next—with almost all the fertile land around Haarlem given over to flowers—a portion of the bulb trade moved away from the city altogether. Today more tulips are produced by the farms of North Holland than come from Haarlem.

There have been other fundamental changes too. Bulb growers have now mastered the techniques necessary to produce tulips all year round. By keeping bulbs at low temperatures in a state of suspended animation, it is now possible to have them flower as desired. The long wait for the next tulip time, which frustrated flower lovers for centuries, no longer exists, and with it has vanished the single most essential precondition of the tulip mania.

Most fundamentally of all, the tulip itself has changed. In the 250 years that have passed since the mania subsided, Dutch farmers have introduced several radically different species to gardens, from parrot tulips, with their twisted leaves and big, beak-tipped petals, to double tulips, with their extra complement of petals, to Darwins—hybrid giants first bred in the nineteenth century. The broken tulips that once achieved such fame, on the other hand, no longer exist. Weakened as they were by the mosaic virus, the original species—including even famed varieties such as Viceroy and Semper Augustus—were in any case doomed to flourish for only a short time, but even their successors are long gone now; for years the only flared and flamed tulips available to gardeners have been imitations produced by careful cross-breeding.

The bulb industry views the destruction of the mosaic virus as one of its proudest achievements, and with good reason. It is the florists’ equivalent of the elimination of smallpox. Yet it can hardly be denied that something has been lost in the winning of this war. The infinite variety that each broken tulip could display is gone, and with it much of the flower’s capacity to fascinate and astound.

Today the bulb trade offers not variety but varieties: a huge and ever-growing array of different tulips. The flower lover of Clusius’s day had only a handful of species to enjoy, but now close to six thousand different tulips have been bred, described, and cataloged.

This dazzling array of choice is certainly impressive in itself; yet it unarguably lessens the importance of individual flowers. The modern fashion for expanses of uniform and unicolored tulips would certainly strike the seventeenth-century connoisseur, with his exemplars planted in their own small beds, as rather vulgar; and surely no modern gardener studies his flowers with the intensity of an old-time tulipophile, or knows each one so well.

As for tulip mania—well, that is one virus that has never disappeared. It always was a purely human disease, one that fed on the complementary human emotions of appreciation of beauty and greed for money, and it still breaks out occasionally. There was, for example, a craze for dahlias in France around 1838. Like the tulip two centuries before, this flower was a relative newcomer to Europe, having been introduced from Mexico around 1790. It was soon taken up by horticulturists, who bred numerous new varieties, and the beauty of the new cultivated flowers won widespread acclaim; they were cited to disprove Rousseau’s contention that in the hands of man everything degenerates. For a short while dahlias fetched high prices; a bed of the flowers is said to have changed hands for seventy thousand francs, * and a single dahlia was exchanged for a fine diamond. Then fashions changed and the dahlia, like the tulip, faded from the history books. In 1912 it was the turn of Dutch gladioli to enjoy a very similar—but equally short-lived—boom.

The most recent manifestation of the old virus occurred as recently as 1985, when a mania broke out in China that followed the template of the tulip craze almost exactly. In this case speculation centered on yet another bulbous flower, the jun zi lan plant, orLycoris radiata—the red spider lily. This lily grows small, funnel-shaped flowers that coil together like a tangled skein of wool. Tremendously long, curved stamens project far beyond the leaves to give the plant a delicious air of delicacy. The spider lily originated in Africa but came to China in the 1930s and was cultivated extensively in the Manchurian city of Ch’ang-ch’un. It was at first a favorite of the old ruling classes of the city, and for a while it was a mark of distinction for a patrician family to grow several different varieties of jun zi lan. The Communist takeover put a stop to the small market for bulbs that had evolved by the end of the 1940s, but the spider lily remained very popular and was eventually designated the official flower of Ch’ang-ch’un. By 1980 it was estimated that half of all the families in the city grew it.

A jun zi lan mania broke out in earnest only a few years later, when the Chinese government allowed a few modest economic reforms. The situation in Ch’ang-ch’un was then quite similar to that in Holland during the 1630s. Entrepreneurial activity was encouraged, but while there was plenty of desire to make money and an abundance of energy to tap, there were very few opportunities to invest any surplus cash. In these circumstances, the spider lily growers of the city took advantage of the growing demand for their flowers from neighboring regions, and as prices began their inevitable rise, * speculation in jun zi lan bulbs followed right behind.

In 1981 or 1982, spider lily bulbs were selling for 100 yuan, about $20. This was already a substantial sum, given the low annual salaries prevalent in China. But by 1985 bulbs of the most coveted varieties are reported to have changed hands for the astronomical amount of 200,000 yuan, or about $50,000, an amount that puts even the sums paid at the height of the Dutch tulip craze to shame. Thus, while Semper Augustus at its peak might have commanded between five and ten thousand guilders a bulb, which was four to eight times the income of a well-off merchant, the highest prices quoted during the jun zi lan mania were equivalent to no less than three hundred times the annual earnings of the typical Chinese university graduate—quite a staggering sum.

In such circumstances it is unsurprising that the spider lily craze was short-lived even by the standards of flower manias. It collapsed in the summer of 1985, apparently because confidence in the fledgling trade had been undermined by a series of critical newspaper articles that described the speculation in bulbs as madness. The whole lily bulb market was quickly flooded with panicked dealers desperate to sell, and bulb prices fell sharply. Just as the Chinese boom had exceeded even the heights attained during the tulip years, so the crash, when it came, was still more severe. By the time the market for spider lilies stabilized at last, prices had plunged by anything up to 99 percent.

Ch’ang-ch’un is in northern China, just north of the fortieth parallel and only two thousand miles from the valleys of the Tien Shan. The mania virus had come home at last.

*Even the most common and mundane objects can become rare and costly in certain circumstances. During the Second World War, when military supplies naturally took priority, U.S. servicemen would go to great lengths to obtain bottles of Coca-Cola. On one occasion a single bottle of the drink, worth five cents, was auctioned on the Italian front for $4,000.

*The equivalent of about $18,000 today.

*It would be wrong to see the Dutch tulip mania as unique. Similar booms—by which economists mean exceptionally rapid rises in prices—and bubbles (booms in which a commodity’s price quite outstrips what it is actually worth to anyone other than a speculator) have occurred all over the world throughout the last four hundred years. The objects of speculation vary from the obvious—stocks and shares, land and oil—to the unusual. In the United Provinces themselves there was a boom in investment in the passenger canal system begun in 1630—a genuinely useful development in the transport system that made many men rich— and during the 1670s a bubble involving the erection of elaborate public clocks.

Of all bubbles, however, the one that perhaps resembles the tulip mania most closely was the Florida land boom of 1925. Like the tulip, Florida was exotic, and before 1925 the state was difficult to get to and both unhealthy and swampy. Gradually, however, the construction of new roads and railroads and the draining of the swampland, together with the guarantee of fine winter weather, made it more attractive, and some rich Americans invested in vacation homes in the Miami area. Poorer people were attracted by their example, and local real estate agents were quick to exploit the rising demand for property.

Stories began to circulate concerning the fantastic profits that could be made by buying and selling land in Florida. The famous lawyer William Jennings Bryan bought a winter home in Miami in 1912 and sold it in 1920 for a profit of $250,000. Later on lots purchased for $1,200 could be resold a few months later for $5,000. A lot purchased for $2,500 was resold for $7,800, then $10,000, $17,500, and finally $35,000—the last purchaser being the man who had sold it for $2,500 and had lived to regret doing so. At Snapper Creek Canal land worth $15 an acre in 1913 sold for $2,000 an acre in 1925, and in central Miami land once worth $30 per acre became worth $75,000. Eventually land in Miami became more valuable than property on Fifth Avenue in New York. Much of it was bought on payment of a small deposit by speculators who planned to resell it before their next payments became due.

Money poured into the state. In a twelve-month period beginning in the autumn of 1924, bank clearings in Miami rose from $212,000 to over $1 million, and land transfers tripled. An edition of the Miami Daily News published in the summer of 1925 ran to 504 pages, almost all of it real estate advertising—a world record at the time. It was said there were two thousand estate agents in Miami alone, employing 25,000 salespeople.

The crash came in the autumn, as crashes often do. Speculators had badly overestimated the real demand for land. The number of winter visitors to the state was only a tenth of what had been predicted. People began to default on their loans, and a man who had sold land for $12 an acre and seen successive purchasers pay $17, $30, and $60 an acre was dismayed to discover that all had failed to pay more than their initial deposit, leaving the land to revert to him. From the summer of 1926 the crisis had caused several Florida banks to fail as clearings fell from $1 billion in 1925 to $633 million a year later and eventually to a mere $143 million in 1928. In the latter year, The Nationwrote, “Miami will be the cheapest place in the United States to live…. One of the most pretentious buildings on the beach, whose monthly rate was $250, now rents for $35.”

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