The Tulip in the Mirror

Other regents had their country houses. Adriaen Pauw, the immensely wealthy burgomaster of Amsterdam, owned a castle. It was only a ruin, but it stood at the center of a substantial estate called Heemstede, which Pauw acquired in 1620, and occupied the only high ground between the North Sea coast and Amsterdam. From the top of the crumbling walls, Pauw enjoyed commanding views over the heartland of the Dutch Republic. On clear days, he could see all the way to the roofscape of Amsterdam. Even when it was overcast, his country home offered an arresting view of bodies swinging in the gibbets that stood outside the walls of Haarlem, less than a mile to the north.

Heemstede became Pauw’s greatest indulgence. The burgomaster lavished money on his estate. He tore the old castle down and replaced it with a modern manor house where he entertained not only the most important men of the republic but, on separate occasions, the queen of England and the queen of France. The interiors were suitably splendid; Pauw packed his new home with expensive furniture, finely woven tapestries, and the best paintings. There was a trophy room full of burnished armor and a library of sixteen thousand books, a truly gigantic quantity for the time.

While the manor house was being built, Pauw set about improving the grounds. Always an enthusiastic investor in land reclamation projects, he had tons of poor topsoil scraped away to reveal more fertile earth beneath. He actively encouraged farming and even light industry in the remoter portions of the estate, enlarging the population of Heemstede to more than one thousand people over time.

But Adriaen Pauw’s greatest joy was not his manor house but his garden. It was carefully laid out, after the formal fashion of the time, just in front of the house, with long tree-shaded walks bisecting ornamental lawns and flower beds filled with roses, lilies, and carnations, whose color splashes set off the geometric precision of Pauw’s box hedges and paths to perfection. And in a prominent position in the center of the garden, the new lord of Heemstede planted a single bed of tulips.

There was one very peculiar thing about Pauw’s garden, though. It wasn’t something that visitors noticed right away; in fact, although the burgomaster entertained lavishly and even permitted sightseers to wander around the estate on weekdays when he was occupied in Amsterdam, some left without even realizing it was there. But that was not altogether surprising. It was not something Pauw wanted his visitors to see.

The secret of the gardens of Heemstede was a weird contrivance of wood and cunningly angled mirrors that stood in the middle of the tulip bed. It was a looking-glass cabinet, designed to multiply whatever stood before it. Its purpose was to create an illusion of plenty where really there was none.

From a distance, and with this strange invention’s help, Pauw’s single tulip bed looked densely planted with hundreds of brilliant flowers. It was only when a curious or appreciative visitor approached more closely that he would realize it was just an optical illusion. The mirrors of the wooden cabinet had turned the few dozen tulips in Pauw’s collection into a spectacular profusion.

For the lord of Heemstede, the looking-glass cabinet was an unfortunate necessity. Pauw needed it because there were some things even he could not buy. Rich and influential though he was, the burgomaster of Amsterdam could not obtain enough tulips to fill his garden, and all the efforts of the best gardeners in Holland could not persuade the bulbs that he already had to multiply as quickly as he wanted.

Pauw’s problem was a simple one. The superbly fine varieties that he collected were extremely rare, because they were the products of a long process of selective breeding. Ever since the earliest Dutch tulips had flowered in Walich Ziwertsz.’s Amsterdam garden, connoisseurs had been carefully selecting the most exquisite specimens, cultivating them with special care, and crossing them with other fine bulbs to create ever more beautiful varieties. Thus while the earliest, rudest tulips had had decades to multiply, the most valuable flowers, those that bore the most delicate colors, were only recent creations. The finest tulips of all were available in such small quantities that not even Adriaen Pauw could obtain them.

Of all the varieties acclaimed “superbly fine,” easily the most coveted was a flower called Semper Augustus, the most celebrated, the scarcest, and by common consent the most wonderful tulip grown anywhere in the United Provinces during the seventeenth century—and thus also by far the most expensive. Semper Augustus was a Rosen tulip, but to call it simply a red and white flower would be like describing rubies and emeralds as red and green stones. Everyone who saw it concurred that it was a plant of quite exceptional beauty. It had a slender stem that carried its flower well clear of its leaves and showed off its vivid colors to the best effect. Beginning as a solid blue where the stem met the flower’s base, the corolla quickly turned pure white. Slim, blood-colored flares shot up the center of all six petals, and flakes and flashes of the same rich shade adorned the flower’s edges. Those fortunate enough to actually see a specimen of Semper Augustus in flower thought it a living wonder, as seductive as Aphrodite.

In truth, though, very few people ever had this privilege. Although the tulip was endlessly hymned by the connoisseurs, illustrated in more tulip books than any other variety, and mentioned so frequently in connection with the bulb craze that it has become virtually synonymous with it, Semper Augustus was practically never actually traded. It was so rare that there were simply no bulbs to be had.

The earliest mentions of the flower date only to the 1620s. By 1624—according to the Dutch chronicler Nicolaes van Wassenaer, who is virtually the only reliable source on the subject—no more than a dozen examples were then in existence, and all twelve were in the hands of a single man who was generally rumored to live in Amsterdam. The identity of this unknown connoisseur is one of the great mysteries of the tulip craze. Van Wassenaer is careful not to name him, and in the absence of any other evidence, it seems unlikely that the puzzle will ever be solved. This, perhaps, is what the reclusive connoisseur would have wished, because the chronicler makes it clear that he was determined not to part with his flowers at any price.

He could have sold his bulbs, easily. At a time when tulips were increasingly widely cultivated, the fact that no more than a dozen specimens of a superbly fine variety were in existence made them a fantastic rarity, and the evidence suggests that the owner could have charged almost any price he cared to ask for a single bulb of Semper Augustus. Instead, he turned down every request to sell his flowers.

Throughout the 1620s the wealthy connoisseurs of the republic bombarded the man with ever more extravagant offers for a single bulb. The sums they were willing to pay were not just large, they were spectacular; van Wassenaer records that in 1623 twelve thousand guilders was not enough to procure ten bulbs. The reclusive connoisseur who grew the flower, he states, valued the private satisfaction of gazing on the beauty of Semper Augustus over any potential profit. Yet his refusal to consider offers merely drove his desperate colleagues to raise their bids. Next summer offers as high as two or three thousand guilders a bulb were made—and just as summarily rejected.

It is with the mysterious Semper Augustus, then, that the first symptoms of what would become known as tulip mania appear. Quite how the flower first made its way to the United Provinces is not known. According to van Wassenaer, the tulip was grown originally from seed owned by a florist in northern France, but not recognizing its value, he disposed of it for a pittance. This must have been around the year 1614. Ten or twelve years later, when the species had eclipsed all other flowers, connoisseurs from Holland hurried south to scour the nurseries and gardens of Flanders, Brabant, and northern France for other specimens of the Semper Augustus. It was a fantastically difficult task, and they met with no success. A few similarly patterned flowers were located—one even received the name Parem Augusto, in honor of its apparent kinship—but somehow none quite matched the empress of tulips in the vividness of its color or the purity of its form.

This failure forced Dutch connoisseurs to try a new tack, and for a while they attempted to promote the most gorgeous specimens from their own collections as rivals to Semper Augustus. Van Wassenaer mentions the varieties Testament Clusii, Testament Coornhert, Motarum van Chasteleyn, and Jufferkens van Marten de Fort in this connection, but striking though these flowers were, none of them excited anything like the admiration reserved for the red-flamed empress. Nor did persistent rumors that a tulip eclipsing even Semper Augustus in beauty had been found growing in a garden in Cologne ever amount to anything.

In the end, though, all the mysterious owner’s efforts to control the supply of Semper Augustus proved to be in vain. Van Wassenaer explains that early on the connoisseur who had discovered the variety did agree to sell a single precious bulb, for the not-inconsiderable sum of a thousand guilders. When the flower was lifted from its bed, he saw that it had grown two offsets from its base. This discovery mortified the connoisseur, who might reasonably have demanded three thousand guilders, rather than one thousand, for the tulip, but it was a piece of tremendous good fortune for the buyer, who had every incentive to sell one of the offsets to recoup his investment in the flower. He now held the makings of a valuable collection in his hand.

From this uncertain start Semper Augustus did very gradually become available to those who could afford to pay for it. Bulbs of this most highly sought-after of flowers appear to have produced viable offsets only rarely—this was a characteristic of the most superbly fine tulips, perhaps because they were more heavily infected with the mosaic virus than were ruder varieties—and even a decade later only a handful existed. Of course, the continued rarity of Semper Augustus did not stop connoisseurs from coveting the flower; in fact, it merely fanned their ardor. That was as good a measure as any of the frenzy for rare bulbs that was now beginning to well up inside the Dutch Republic.

The scarcity of tulips in seventeenth-century Holland is central to a proper understanding of the bulb craze. To a Dutchman of the Golden Age, the tulip was not a mundane and readily available flower. It was a brilliant newcomer, still bearing something of the allure of the exotic East and obtainable only in strictly limited quantities. Because the most superbly fine varieties were scarce, they were coveted; because they were coveted, they were expensive. And because they were expensive, they became increasingly lucrative to grow.

A handful of tulip connoisseurs had always produced their own flowers and been keen and able horticulturalists in their own right. For example, the brothers Balthasar and Daniël de Neufville—a pair of rich linen merchants from Haarlem—bred two new varieties, one a Rosen and the other a Violetten, which they grew in the garden of a house just inside the city walls that they had named “the Land of Promise.” Most of their contemporaries, however, were less skilled, and by the late 1620s it was increasingly apparent that demand for tulips could no longer be met simply by the exchange of small quantities of bulbs among connoisseurs. New enthusiasts for the flower, who had none of the skills needed to breed varieties of their own and few of the connections necessary to obtain bulbs in the traditional way, had begun to enter the market. Some possessed extensive gardens and wished to cultivate tulips of many different varieties. These newcomers were forced to look elsewhere for their supplies.

They turned to the handful of professional horticulturalists who had begun to cultivate the fashionable new flowers. This was a key development in the history of the tulip, for there can be no doubt that without the efforts of the professionals many fewer new varieties would have been developed. The total quantity of bulbs in circulation would have been less too, and the speed with which the tulip spread across the United Provinces would have been reduced.

By 1630 professional flower growers could be found in almost every town in the Dutch Republic. Most cultivated all manner of flowers, although a number, such as Henrik Pottebacker of Gouda—creator of the Rosen variety Pottebacker Gevlamt and the rust-and-yellow-flamed Bizarden Admirael Pottebacker—had begun to specialize in tulips. They were expert horticulturalists and—just as importantly—they had a keen eye for what was valuable and what would sell.

At the top of the market Semper Augustus’s closest rivals included Viceroy—a big, bold, purple-flamed flower generally recognized as the king of the Violetten—and at the head of the Bizarden, a flower called Root en Gheel van Leyde (“Red and yellow of Leiden”). At the bottom, the cheapest and least coveted flowers were simple unicolored flowers, their petals colored yellow, red, or white, which—being the earliest of all Dutch tulips—were also the most common.

Gardeners such as Pottebacker had not sprung from nowhere. They had learned their skills from earlier, less polished growers who had existed in small numbers since the end of the sixteenth century and scratched a living in the limited markets of the day. Clusius and his circle of aristocratic friends possessed a low opinion of these first professionals, criticizing them for their often alarming ignorance of botany and despising their willingness to bestow crudely populist names on the new varieties that occasionally appeared—more, perhaps, by luck than judgment—in their gardens. Nevertheless, they grew tulips, and they were learning.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the handful of pioneer bulb farmers (who then based themselves in the countryside just outside Brussels) were having to compete with an even more discreditable group of itinerant flower collectors. These restless individualists scoured the countryside—mostly in France—for unusual specimens and sold them to collectors, mostly in the Netherlands. They called themselves rhizotomi (the word is Greek for “root cutters”), and even Clusius, in his declining years, found them useful sources of flowers that he was no longer mobile enough to collect for himself.

At least a few of the rhizotomi were honorable men—Clusius names Nicolas le Quilt of Paris and Guilielmus Boëlius as reliable suppliers of the rare bulbs he still sought—but on the whole the collectors had a slightly unsavory reputation. This was because it waseasy for them to palm off ordinary seeds and bulbs as rarities and to claim substantial payments for their labors, safe in the knowledge that they would be long gone and back over the border in France before the flowers bloomed and the fraud was discovered. Since it was quite impossible for even an expert botanist such as Clusius to tell what sort of tulip would grow from an anonymous brown bulb, this problem was destined to cause all sorts of disputes before the bulb craze reached its height.

Nor were the rhizotomi the only people searching the countryside for rare plants in the first years of the new century; wild tulips were increasingly available from apothecaries too, collected during trips to gather medicinal plants and herbs. Among those known to have stocked the bulbs are three Dutchmen: Willem van de Kemp of Utrecht, Petrus Garret of Amsterdam, and Christiaan Porret of Leiden.

Apothecaries—early pharmacists who peddled folk and quack remedies to those who could not afford the services of the few qualified physicians of the time—were as commonplace in the seventeenth century as pharmacists are today. They wore the same uniform as doctors—black robes and coat, collar bands, and a pointed hat—but their premises were easily identified by their traditional symbol, a stuffed crocodile, which generally hung suspended from the ceiling over the counter.

Principled though some undoubtedly were, apothecaries shared with the rhizotomi a certain notoriety as disreputable opportunists in the first years of the seventeenth century. They had only recently left the grocers’ guild, to which they had belonged for centuries, to join the physicians—so recently, indeed, that their shops were still the only places where Dutchmen were allowed to buy fruit tarts. But many apothecaries had come up with better ways of making money than that. Their premises often doubled as clandestine drinking dens, and many secretly offered medical consultations, which were really supposed to be the monopoly of physicians. Such men were happy to meet the growing demand for tulips by supplying dried bulbs. Some of their customers were genuine flower lovers and connoisseurs, but it appears that the more unscrupulous apothecaries also promoted bulbs as an aphrodisiac.

It was only gradually, between the years 1600 and 1630, that the buccaneering rhizotomi and the apothecaries were supplanted by the new breed of respectable professional nurserymen. Many of these growers were based in Haarlem, the second largest city in the province of Holland, which had been built on the sort of poor, sandy soil that was ideally suited to the cultivation of tulips. They favored small plots of rented land just outside the city walls and within easy walking distance of the gates. According to Haarlem tradition, most of the city’s tulip gardens were just outside the Grote Houtpoort—the Great Wood-Gate—that guarded one of the two southern entries to the town. But perhaps the best of Haarlem’s little flower farms were situated along the bosky Kleine Houtweg, the Little Wood-Road, which ran from the other gate on the south side of the city down through an area still known today as the rose district and on to the famous Haarlem Wood, which was the city’s favorite beauty spot. More than twenty nurserymen were based along this road, and it was here that the famous tulip grower David de Mildt, who figures prominently in many of the surviving records of the mania, had his garden at a spot named Twijnderslaan. When de Mildt died, aged only thirty-three, at the height of the craze, his plot was taken over by another prominent tulip grower, Barent Cardoes, and renamed the Garden of Flora. Under Cardoes’s management, it became one of the best-regarded bulb farms in Holland.

Barent Cardoes learned his trade working for another Haarlem grower, the celebrated Pieter Bol. Bol was the creator of Violetten Anvers Bol and several other superbly fine varieties and possibly the richest tulip grower of the age. Unlike the majority of his fellow growers, he was, it would appear, a patrician and a connoisseur who employed professional gardeners such as Cardoes to do much of the actual work involved in cultivating his bulbs. But some way south of the city, in the lordship of Vianen, lived another grower who came from a much humbler background. His name was Francisco Gomes da Costa, and he was probably the most industrious of all the horticulturists in the United Provinces.

Da Costa was a Portuguese grower who made a name for himself by the sheer variety of tulips he created. He seems never to have mastered the Dutch tongue with much confidence—the manuscript of a gardening book he commissioned for his own use still survives, which lists the names of all his flowers phonetically for his benefit—but he was an unparalleled innovator in the garden. No fewer than eight varieties bore his name. One of his most famous creations was Paragon da Costa—a Paragon being generally defined as a variety that was an improvement on an existing flower, usually because its colors were finer or more intense. On that basis, Francisco da Costa’s proudest achievement was probably Paragon Viceroy da Costa, a tulip that claimed to improve on the unimprovable Viceroy.

For an immigrant such as da Costa, tulip farming was attractive for precisely the same reasons that it appealed to many of the Dutch. Little investment was required, a small plot of land and some tulip seed or bulbs being all that was required to start; tulips were hardy and grew well in poor soil; and bulb growers were not required to belong to any of the restrictive and expensive guilds that so rigorously controlled most of the trades and professions in the Dutch Republic.

To anyone who was at all horticulturally inclined, however, it was the profits that could be made in the tulip trade that proved most alluring. Individual growers certainly became wealthy. Pieter Bol’s name is mentioned as one of those who profited most from the flower business, but when the Haarlem dealer Jan van Damme died in 1643, he left an estate consisting primarily of tulip bulbs that was valued at 42,000 guilders, a fortune that ranked him alongside many of the wealthy merchants who had made their money in the rich trades.

Where did all this money come from? Successful growers such as van Damme owed their success to an ability to exploit every possible market for their bulbs. Most found ready customers among the connoisseurs and the owners of fashionable new country houses, but they were also happy to sell their bulbs to members of the emerging merchant class as well. And from as early as 1610 a few intelligent horticulturalists were selling their tulips in the Holy Roman Empire and, no doubt, the southern Netherlands and northern France. What started as a very minor export trade indeed grew, slowly but surely, to the point where in the first quarter of the eighteenth century the Dutch were shipping cargoes of bulbs to North America, the Mediterranean, and even the Ottoman Empire.

Perhaps the first Dutch bulb dealer to move into the export trade was Emanuel Sweerts, another old friend of Clusius’s who kept a curiosity shop in Amsterdam and was active in the first decade of the century. He not only imported bulbs from all over Europe but began to offer tulips for sale at the Messe, a vast fair held each year at Frankfurt am Main. (The Frankfurt Book Fair, which still attracts tens of thousands of publishers to the city each year, is actually a survivor of this tremendous medieval market.)

The increasing professionalism of the bulb trade posed one important problem for men such as Emanuel Sweerts. Tulips were in flower for only a few days each year; they had to be sold as bulbs. But these plain brown packages offered no clue to the glories they concealed within, and they certainly did not look like an enticing investment. Sweerts came up with the solution: a catalog packed with illustrations portraying his tulips in all their glory. He persuaded the most eminent of all his clients, the Holy Roman emperor Rudolf II, to pay the print bill—the same emperor who had once dismissed Clusius from the imperial service but who now dabbled in tulips in between conducting the alchemical experiments that were his chief passion—and published his catalog, theFlorilegium, in Frankfurt just before his death in 1612. The Florilegium was modeled on contemporary herbals; there was very little text, but each of the tulips within it was accorded a concise description, in Latin, which gave the essential information about its shape and color.

Only two years after the Florilegium first appeared, a Dutch artist named Chrispijn van de Passe produced a similar book called the Hortus Floridus. Van de Passe, the son of a Flemish engraver, was only seventeen years old when his book appeared, but it proved to be one of the most successful botanical works of the age and was quickly translated from the original Latin into French, English, and Dutch. The Dutch edition featured a list of the leading tulip enthusiasts of the early seventeenth century, and later impressions included an appendix devoted entirely to the flower, showing that a lively trade in bulbs already existed between the United Provinces and Germany.

It was not long before the Hortus Floridus began to serve as a handy catalog for nurserymen who did not enjoy the luxury of a wealthy patron willing to bankroll the production of a book such as the Florilegium. But there was a limit to the usefulness of a general printed catalog, particularly in the early days of the tulip trade, when every grower offered his own unique varieties for sale. This problem was solved by the introduction of one of the most notable traditions of the bulb craze—the production of richly illustrated, privately commissioned manuscripts called tulip books. A significant number of these albums were produced for individual Dutch horticulturalists and nearly fifty are known today; they were anything up to five hundred pages long and typically contained one illustration per page, executed in watercolor or gouache. Each picture was generally accompanied by the tulip’s name but only very occasionally by any information regarding price. There is a suspicion that bulb growers, like many modern-day antique dealers, preferred to price their bulbs according to their assessment of their customers’ wealth.

Customers who paid more than they anticipated for their bulbs were not the only people to be shortchanged by the owners of the tulip books; the artists who illustrated them—a few of whom were eminent painters in their own right—were generally very poorly paid for their efforts, perhaps earning only a handful of stuivers per page. Marginal notes in a book painted largely by Jacob van Swanenburch of Leiden, the master who taught Rembrandt van Rijn, show that the painter completed 122 flower pictures for a fee of just over six stuivers per painting.

Jacob van Swanenburch was not the only highly regarded artist to contribute to a grower’s tulip book. Judith Leyster, the only woman who actually earned her living as a painter in the United Provinces during the Golden Age, painted two Rosen tulips for an album now commonly known as Judith Leyster’s Tulip Book in her honor, although the rest of the paintings are by other hands, and Pieter Holsteijn the Younger illustrated a manuscript for a grower named Cos that carries the date 1637 and, unusually, gives not only the flowers’ names (some of them in the form of a riddle or a rebus) but their price and the weight of each bulb when planted. It consisted of fifty-three gouaches of tulips, with twelve additional drawings and some watercolors of carnations.

A close study of this and other flower albums shows that many of the artists who produced them created something approaching a production line of illustrations by arranging for their assistants to paint the flowers’ leaves and stems (often in a hackneyed style that probably bore only a sketchy resemblance to their real appearance) and executing only the difficult portion—the petals—themselves. Others copied sketches of the rarest varieties from earlier books, although some of the tulips were so scarce that they must have been included more for the sake of completeness than anything else.

With tulip books at their disposal, Dutch nurserymen were armed with a valuable sales tool that could be used to attract more customers and lure existing ones to try new varieties. But the surviving albums, thronged with page after page of all but identical Rosen, Violetten, and Bizarden flowers, inadvertently make an important point about the often-chaotic workings of the seventeenth-century flower trade.

One of the major difficulties facing both growers and connoisseurs was the problem of distinguishing between strikingly similar varieties. Even the most knowledgeable dealers and growers must have found it difficult, if not impossible, to tell one Rosen tulip from another with almost identical markings, even though those varieties might be worth very different sums. This problem lay at the root of a number of the sometimes bitter disputes between growers and their customers that dot the surviving records of the flower trade.

The fact that tulips of the same variety differed one from another and from generation to generation did not help; nor did the plethora of confusingly similar names that were bestowed upon new flowers by their creators. Outsiders found the chaotic nomenclature of Dutch tulips almost impossible to grapple with. In this early period there were no firm rules and certainly no central authority that could impose any sort of order on the way tulips were named. Anyone who created a new variety had the privilege of conferring a title upon it, and generally they chose either to give it an overblown name that hinted at the exceptional qualities they felt it possessed, or to name it after themselves. Quite frequently they managed to do both.

The man who inadvertently found himself responsible for this craze was the bailiff of Kennermerland, the coastal region between Haarlem and the sea. He created a Rosen tulip of exceptional beauty, and casting around for a name to convey its excellence, he decided to christen it Admirael (“admiral”). Before long the Admirael name had become the highest epithet to which a tulip could aspire, and other growers flocked to apply it to their own creations: Admirael Liefkens, Admirael Krijntje, Admirael van Enckhuysen, and the most celebrated of all, Admirael van der Eijck. Foreigners sometimes made the mistake of believing that these flowers were named after naval heroes of the Dutch Revolt, but of course they really commemorated not sailors but the horticulturists who had created the flower. At the time of the tulip mania there were already about fifty different varieties with the Admirael prefix, and another thirty or so that bore the rival title Generael (“general”). The Generaels included one flower that had been named Generael van der Eijck, perhaps in the hope of persuading potential buyers that its qualities matched those of the fabled Admirael tulip.

Nor did matters end there. Once the fashion for Admiraels and Generaels had run its course, growers took the logical next step of searching for new superlatives and created a class of plants named Generalissimo. Next came varieties named after real Classical heroes such as Alexander the Great and Scipio, and eventually two tulips from Gouda titled, with breathtaking arrogance, “Admiral of Admirals” and “General of Generals.” At least these really were superbly fine varieties, noted for their size and fiery scarlet stripes.

Such practices meant that many inferior tulips received the Admirael or Generael name, and customers could not necessarily even determine the sort of flower they were buying simply from its title. Generaels, for example, were almost always Rosen tulips, but at least three Violettens bore the name, and there were Violetten and even Bizarden Admiraels. Naturally all this confusion meant that growers had to do what they could to publicize the new varieties they had created. One contemporary writer explained how this was done:

If a change in a Tulip is effected, one goes to a florist and tells him, and it soon gets talked about. Everyone is anxious to see it. If it is a new flower, each one gives his opinion; one compares it to this, another to that, flower. If it looks like an Admirael you call it a Generael, or any other name you fancy, and stand a bottle of wine to your friends that they may remember to talk about it.

Talk they did. By 1633 the combined efforts of the growers and the connoisseurs, the rhizotomi and the apothecaries, had all but solved the old problem of scarcity. Tulips were at last widely available throughout the Netherlands. A total of some five hundred different varieties were by then being grown in the Dutch Republic alone—some superbly fine and extremely rare, but others, still beautiful, rather easier to obtain. And as the supply of bulbs steadily increased, the flower began to attract new admirers among the tradesmen and working men of the Dutch Republic—men who had not until then been able to afford tulips or displayed much interest in the bulb trade.

In part this was the work of the growers. Their most important customers, the connoisseurs, were demanding ever finer and rarer tulips, which left the bulb farmers with the task of disposing of increasing quantities of the older, less spectacular varieties that naturally made up the bulk of their stock. They solved the problem by selling these flowers at low prices to new clients who had heard much excited talk about the beauty of the more fashionable varieties and wanted tulips of their own. Some of the more ambitious growers even took to offering unwanted bulbs to members of the army of peddlers who traveled from town to town selling their wares at local fairs and markets. These men hawked the flowers far and wide. They helped to introduce the ruder varieties to farmers, laborers, and polder boys out in the countryside and spread the gospel of the tulip far and wide.

In greater measure, though, the interest that many Dutchmen now developed in the flower trade owed less to the tulip’s natural beauty than to the dawning realization that money could be made in bulbs. That was something worth investigating. For money, despite the enormous wealth now flowing into the republic, was something many of its citizens saw all too little of.

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