Stranger from the East

The sailing ships that limped into Goa, the capital of the Portuguese possessions in India, late in October 1529 were in a very sorry state. They were badly battered about and manned, almost literally, by skeleton crews, having lost upward of two thousand men to a combination of fever and starvation on the long voyage out from Lisbon. The commander of the flotilla, a noble named Nunho da Cunha, had survived, however—and his arrival was extremely bad news for Lopo Vaz de Sampayo, the governor of Portuguese India.

Da Cunha carried instructions from the king of Portugal that named him governor in place of Lopo Vaz. Worse, Vaz himself was summoned home in disgrace. The recall had been ordered because word had finally reached Lisbon that Vaz had usurped the royal favorite, who was supposed to have been appointed governor, and ruled the Portuguese enclaves on India’s west coast for two years in his stead. Lopo Vaz returned home a prisoner and languished in jail until 1532, when he was banished to Africa for a while to await an eventual pardon.

All this matters because Lopo Vaz de Sampayo is said to be the man who introduced the tulip to Western Europe. The horticulturist Charles de la Chesnée Monstereul, in his Le Floriste François, published in 1654, says that Vaz brought the tulip home with him from Ceylon, and several other seventeenth-century authorities make an identical claim.

It is, however, difficult to see how Lopo Vaz could have accomplished this feat, given the circumstances of his return. To begin with, tulips do not grow in Ceylon, and the island is hundreds of miles off the route Portuguese ships took when they were sailing home. And though it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the Portuguese in Goa had acquired the flower—either from the Persians they sometimes dealt with in the gulf, or from Indians who had them from one of Babur’s gardens in the north of the subcontinent—the voyage to Lisbon was an arduous one that took about six months when the conditions were good, and anything up to two and a half years when they were not.

If the story about Lopo Vaz is true, then, he must have been a tulip maniac of some distinction—keen enough on flowers to persuade his captors to allow him to take his bulbs on board and perhaps even cultivate them in pots on the appallingly crowded and squalid little ships that the Portuguese used to sail to India and back. This is not quite impossible; prisoners of quality got decent treatment in those days whatever their crimes, and Vaz was certainly not carried back to Lisbon in chains. But it is improbable enough for us to doubt that this undistinguished and unlucky noble really deserves to be remembered as the man who first brought the tulip to Europe.

The truth is that no one knows exactly how or where or when the flower first left Asia. The Turks and Persians grew so many of the flowers, and the bulbs were so eminently portable, that it would be very surprising if at least a handful of tulips did not find their way west at some point during the Middle Ages. If they did, however, there is no record of them in the illustrations or chronicles produced at the time, so they can hardly have been planted in quantity or spread far, and the same applies to any specimens that may have come to Portugal from India; when European botanists did encounter the tulip in the 1560s they thought the flower a great novelty, something entirely new.

Occasionally, some new piece of evidence suggesting that the tulip was present in Europe before the mid-sixteenth century is uncovered, but none has gone without challenge. There is, for example, the problem of the wild red and yellow tulips of the species T. silvestris and T. australis, that still grow wild in Savoy. It has been suggested that these are survivors of an indigenous European wild tulip that was once linked to its Asiatic cousin by colonies strung across the Balkans. The Savoy tulips, however, have an erratic distribution and are generally found on cultivated land, which suggests that their forebears were planted by people. Then there is a painting, Virgin with Child, showing Mary turning her face to flowers that include garden tulips, which was once attributed to Leonardo da Vinci; but it has now been reassigned to his pupil Melzi, who did not die until 1572. Most remarkably of all, there is a Roman mosaic dating to before A.D. 430 on exhibit in the Vatican Museum that unarguably shows a basket of broad-petaled red tulips. Their arrangement, however, is so evidently eighteenth century in style that it seems the mosaic must have undergone major reconstruction after it was removed from a villa in the suburbs of Rome in the 1700s.

Perhaps the first European to appreciate the beauty of the tulip was Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, the bastard son of a Flemish lord who was for years the most influential Netherlander in the Austrian court. In November 1554 Busbecq went to Istanbul as ambassador of the Holy Roman emperor, and he remained in the Ottoman Empire for almost eight years, making only occasional journeys home. When he did eventually return, he published, in 1581, a book of recollections, written in the form of letters, that described his experiences among the Turks. The letters were packed with intimate and gossipy details and made his name—both in his own day and among historians who still rely on Busbecq to add color to accounts of daily life at the height of Ottoman rule. They also contain his own account of how he first encountered the tulip.

Busbecq was traveling overland from Vienna to Istanbul, and had just left the Thracian city of Adrianople when he first saw the flower growing in the wild. “We set out,” the ambassador wrote in one letter,

on the last stage of our journey to Constantinople, which was now close at hand. As we passed through this district we everywhere came across quantities of flowers—narcissi, hyacinths and tulipans, as the Turks call them. We were surprised to find them flowering in mid-winter, scarcely a favorable season. There is an abundance of narcissi and hyacinths in Greece, and they possess so wonderful a scent that a large quantity of them causes a headache in those who are unaccustomed to such an odour. The tulip has little or no scent, but it is admired for its beauty and the variety of its colors. The Turks are very fond of flowers, and though they are otherwise anything but extravagant, they do not hesitate to pay several aspres * for a fine blossom.

Indeed, Busbecq complained, when he did reach the capital and was presented with some fine tulips by his hosts, “these flowers, although they were gifts, cost me a great deal, for I had to pay several aspres in return for them.” (Another traveler, George Sandys—a son of the archbishop of York—found the Turks equally anxious to press their precious flowers onto strangers at about this time, though he was even less enamored with the gifts than was Busbecq. “You cannot stirre abroad,” the Englishman grumbled, “but you shall be presented by the Dervishes and Janizaries with tulips and trifles.”)

For many years, it was thought that this account of Busbecq’s was contemporary and referred to his initial journey to Istanbul, undertaken during the winter of 1554. More recently, however, it has been shown that all the letters that make up his book were written long after the fact—probably not until the early 1580s, when the tulip had become reasonably well known in Europe—and that the journey he described could not have been his first, made in the depths of winter. Tulips do not flower at that time of year, even in the Ottoman domain; Busbecq therefore must have been misremembering the details of a second journey out to Istanbul, which he undertook when the tulips were in flower—in March 1558.

Given this revision, it is clear that even if the ambassador’s account is accurate in its other details, attributing to Busbecq the tulip’s introduction to Europe would be all but impossible; the flower was definitely growing in at least one German garden by April 1559. For this to have been Busbecq’s work, he would have had to have sent tulip bulbs back within a few months of his arrival for immediate planting that same autumn—which is possible but not especially likely. It is true that Busbecq did post valuable flower bulbs and seeds from Istanbul to Europe, but as it is not known for certain that he did so any earlier than 1573, it would be dangerous to attribute the existence of one particular tulip to his efforts.

A similar confusion unfortunately swirls about the part Busbecq may have played in giving the flower its familiar name. The Turks, of course, called the tulip lale, and Busbecq is generally believed to have described it as a tulipan because of the petals’ resemblance to a folded turban—dulbend to the Turks, and tulband to the people of the Netherlands. A comparison of this sort could well explain how the word tulip entered the English language, but it cannot have been as a consequence of Busbecq’s travels. The term has been traced back as far as 1578, when it appeared in a translation of a botanical work that had originally been published in Latin, so it was certainly in circulation before the ambassador published his famous letters. It took time, in any case, for the wordtulip to be generally accepted; in the late sixteenth century European botanists most often referred to the flower as lilionarcissus, emphasizing its kinship with more familiar bulbous plants.

It was in the year 1559, then, that the first tulip definitely known to have flowered in Europe appeared. It grew in the garden of a certain Johann Heinrich Herwart, a councilor of Augsburg, in Bavaria. The town was part of the Holy Roman Empire—that remarkable agglomeration of German cities and states that endured from the Dark Ages until its dissolution at the hands of Napoleon, and of which it is important to remember only, in Voltaire’s famous phrase, that “it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”—and Herwart’s garden appears to have been one of its principal adornments. It was certainly well enough known to attract visitors from some distance away.

One of these who came and saw the new flower Herwart had grown was a natural scientist called Conrad Gesner, who lived in Zürich. Like many scholars of that time, Gesner was a polymath who studied zoology as well as botany, and he was also a doctor of medicine; one of his most remarkable cases concerned a mysterious epidemic during which snakes and newts were seen crawling from the stomachs of the recently dead. By the late 1550s he was already compiling the important works of natural history for which he is best remembered, including a comprehensive botany called the Catalogus plantarum. He was, in short, well able to understand the significance of the brilliant import he found in Herwart’s flower beds.

“In the month of April 1559,” Gesner recalled, “I saw this plant displayed, sprung from a seed that had come from Byzantia * or as others say from Cappadocia. It was flowering with a single beautifully red flower, large, like a red lily, formed of eight petals of which four were outside and the rest within. It had a very sweet, soft and subtle scent which soon disappeared.” The sketch that Gesner made of his short-stemmed scarlet flower still survives, covered with scribbled marginal notes and queries that pay mute tribute to his interrogative mind. It shows a comfortably rounded flower with tight-wrapped petals curling delicately outward at the tips. (There are only six petals, the normal number, in this watercolor, rather than the eight Gesner mentioned in his written description, leaving open the interesting question of whether this pioneer tulip was actually a “sport,” or mutation.) Gesner called it Tulipa turcarum, acknowledging that its provenance was the Ottoman realm.

By the time the Swiss scientist completed his sketch in the spring of 1559, however, the tulip had certainly established itself elsewhere in Europe. Gesner himself had already seen a sketch of another specimen, yellow this time, that may have grown in northern Italy; it had been sent to him by his correspondent Johann Kentmann, an artist who had lived in Padua, Venice, and Bologna between 1549 and 1551. From these bases and maybe others, the flower spread quickly from country to country. Its novelty, delicacy, and beauty made it welcome everywhere, and its wide distribution was assisted by the easy portability of its bulbs.

The time was now right for the tulip. With the discovery of silver mines in the Americas and trade routes to the Indies, there was more money about in Europe than ever before, and the rich were looking for interesting new ways to spend it. The Renaissance hadreawakened interest in science, and printing had made both new discoveries and hoarded stores of older knowledge widely available. One consequence of these developments was that botany and gardening were greatly in fashion among the elite. Many of the most influential and affluent citizens of Europe planted their own gardens and wanted to stock them with rare and coveted plants. Even in Augsburg, Councilor Herwart’s collection was easily overshadowed by the gardens of the Fuggers, the fabulously rich Bavarian family of bankers who were to the fifteenth century what the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers were to the twentieth. The Fuggers were growing tulips in Augsburg by the beginning of the 1570s.

There were tulips in Vienna by 1572. They were in Frankfurt by 1593, and they reached the south of France by 1598 (possibly much earlier). Bulbs were sent into England as early as 1582, where they were soon grown in great quantity. Before the end of the sixteenth century, endless ranks of new hybrids, each more colorful than the last, had already begun to make their appearance: James Garret, one of the best-known botanists in England, spent two decades producing new varieties—so many that even his friend John Gerrard (the curator of the physic garden of the London College of Physicians, who mentions them in a herbal published in 1597) confessed that “to describe them particularlie were to roule Sisiphus’s stone, or number the sandes.”

Garret was a Flemish immigrant who worked as a pharmacist and kept a garden at London Wall. His tulips—Gerrard mentions that he grew yellow, white, red, and lilac varieties—were valued not so much for their beauty as for their supposed medicinal properties. An English botanist, John Parkinson, whose celebrated treatise on flowers appeared some three decades later, mentions they could be mashed into red wine and drunk as a cure for “a cricke in the necke.” They were the stock from which many more varieties were grown; by the reign of Charles I (1625–49) and with the help of imports from the East, more than fifty different tulips were cultivated in the royal gardens.

Gerrard might not have felt able to make the effort to catalog all these flowers, but someone had to. The profusion of new varieties included tulips that differed one from another not merely in their color but in their height, the shape of their leaves, and whether they bloomed early or late. What the flower needed now, more than anything, was someone who could create order from the impending chaos. Without a sound system of classification, the whole genus could get mired in a botanical muddle from which it might never emerge. Without a system of evaluation, moreover—one that indicated which flowers were rare and covetable, and which common and worthless—a trade in tulips could never have developed.

Fortunately such a man existed. He was indisputably the greatest botanist of the sixteenth century, indeed one of the greatest of all time. He was to become, in important respects, the father of the tulip. His name was Carolus Clusius.

*A Turkish coin.

*Byzantium, that is, the Ottoman Empire.

province in central Anatolia, still today the home of flourishing colonies of wild tulips.

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