A plant of the economy. Originating in central Asia and Turkey, it was the introduction of the Tulip to Holland in the 17th century which subsequently caused the world’s first asset bubble. During this period of so-called ‘Tulip mania’, the plants became a luxury item: the price of bulbs soared until they peaked and subsequently came crashing down, leading to serious financial repercussions.
In the few wild species of tulip that have evolved to be pollinated by beetles rather than relying on the wind or other flying insects, the flowers are scarlet. Otherwise, they offer sunshine-yellow splashes of colour on the semi-arid hills of central Asia, from where migrating tribes brought them to present-day Turkey in the Middle Ages.
Some tulip petals have patches of microscopic ridges whose structure creates an iridescent halo of blue and ultraviolet light to which bees are especially sensitive but which we perceive only as a subtle shimmer around the very darkest cultivated varieties.
Tulips take their name from the Turkish and Persian words for ‘turban’, whose shape is reminiscent of the flower’s bud. Representing shared cultural identity, tulips signify feminine beauty, perfection and paradise in Turkish poetry, and the form with pointed petals appears as a common motif in art, architecture and Islamic tiling.
By the late-16th century, tulips had reached the Netherlands and plant breeders set about creating gaudy hybrids, some of them infected with plant viruses that caused elaborate streaking on the petals. In the context of wealthy Dutch merchants looking for investment opportunities and the ability to show off their wealth, the combination of rarity and public interest led to ‘tulip mania’. In the first ‘asset bubble’ of its kind, tulip bulbs changed hands for increasingly ridiculous sums until in 1637, after a three-year speculative frenzy of risk and greed now taught to every student of economics, the bubble burst.
Tulip cultivation is still centred in the Netherlands, where intensive farming stamps the land with splendid blocks of colour but presents a dining opportunity for insects and fungi that is held in check only by epic application of agricultural chemicals.
Want to delve deeper into the world of trees and plants?
Check out author Jon Drori's beautifully illustrated works, Around the World in 80 Trees and Around the World in 80 Plants - intertwining botany with history, culture and folklore. Both are available from all booksellers or via Jon’s website. Jon has very kindly offered a 25% discount with the voucher code 80JONDRORI.
Click below to listen to original music by Rakae Jamil, alongside spoken text by Jon Drori created in response to the Tulip, Iconic Plant and commissioned especially for PoliNations. Narration by Jade Samuels. To listen to the music by itself. click the link further up the page.
Illustration by Lucille Clerc.
All Iconic Plants
A journeying plant. Although a common sight in British orchards and gardens today, the apple actually originated in Kazakhstan! Like so many goods before it, the plant journeyed to the UK via the Silk Road. The apple’s prevalence is even more surprising when you consider its inability to self-pollinate; since the seed of an apple won’t replicate its parent, the only way to replicate an apple is to graft a new one.
A plant of identity and protest. Historically, ‘pansy’ has been used as a derogatory term for gay men - one of several horticulturally derived slurs. Over time, the name has been reclaimed as a celebration of diversity and sexuality: throughout the 20th century numerous freethinking movements have used the term, including the drag ball scene of 1920s - 1930s New York, in which performers were referred to as ‘pansy performers’ because of their colourful clothing.
A plant of pragmatism. Long seen as a symbol of sorrow due to its drooping branches, the willow also tells a story of resilience, healing and strength. One of the few trees that can be bent without breaking, willow trees are known for their association with crafts and weaving, but they also have a long history of healing. The medicinal properties of willow bark, which contain a chemical used in aspirin, have been used for centuries.
A plant of resistance and tenacity. The ultimate survivor, Amaranth was first used by Aztecs in rituals involving food created from the plant. Subsequently outlawed by the Spanish conquerors the plant became a symbol of resistance against the invaders. It survived their repression and continues to be grown across the world today.
A plant of wellbeing. Throughout history, lavender has been used to soothe, calm and alleviate stress. Highly fashionable in the Victorian era and into the 20th century, the scent can evoke strong memories among the older generations in particular. The plant itself, and the oil derived from it, has multiple uses across perfume, cooking and herbal medicine. Its healing qualities are known to have been used as far back as Ancient Egypt!
An ancient plant. Ferns are one of the most ancient plants found across the globe and believe it or not played a vital part in the globalisation of the world as we know it! As a central ingredient in coal, which fuelled the industrial revolution, the humble fern had a key role to play in getting us to where we are today.
A plant of empire. While a quintessentially English drink nowadays, and well known for being grown in India, tea has its roots in the history of empire. Originally found and imported solely from China, the East India Company moved to prevent a Chinese monopoly on the product by smuggling the plant, and the secrets of its cultivation, out of China and into India. Soon, tea became established as a profitable export for landowners.
A plant of poetry. Throughout history the rose has featured in literature and mythology from across the world, and has come to represent many things: love, war, purity and friendship among others. In a happy reflection of cultures coming together, it’s only in hybridising with the Chinese rose, that the English Rose came to flower for as long as it does now.