THE AMATEUR WORD NERD: The remarkable history of the tulip

By Barbara McAllister

Word of the Day: Tulip
The name of the slender, colorful flower known as a tulip is often thought to be from its resemblance to “two lips.” It’s actually named for its resemblance to a turban, and comes from the Turkish word for turban. While we typically associate tulips and Holland, they were first cultivated by the Turks as early as 1000 A.D. Tulips were originally a wildflower in central Asia, part of the lily family. Before tulips were introduced to Europe, Turkey had its own “tulip mania” during the Ottoman Empire. A 16th century sultan found such great pleasure in their beauty he held tulip festivals and insisted on Constantinople being beautified by planting tulips in parks and plazas to the extent that it became a crime to buy or sell tulips outside the capital.
Tulips were introduced to Holland around the beginning of the 17th century and quickly became popular as a trading commodity. Botanists began to hybridize the flower and started making ever more decorative, rare blooms. The unique hybrids soon were seen as status symbols and the bulbs began selling at astronomically high prices. It is said that in late 1636 to early 1637, some rare bulbs cost more than a house in Amsterdam. One of the most famous market crashes of all time came in 1637 when prices inevitably collapsed. Tulip mania was a classic example of a financial bubble, resulting from excessive greed and speculation. Tulips continue to be popular in Holland today. The Netherlands is the largest producer of tulips in the world with over 150 species and 3,000 different varieties of tulips. The flower buds are prized for their near-perfect symmetry. The flowers themselves can be fringed, striped or doubled and found in almost any color including orange, maroon, salmon and black. Purple is said to be the rarest color, a color that was once forbidden to be owned by anyone not of royal birth. t’s a remarkable history for a former wildflower that blooms only three to 10 days in the spring.