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The Tulip

The Tulip

by Anna Pavord

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THE TULIP is not a gardening book. It is the story of a flower that has made men mad. Greed, desire, anguish and devotion have all played their part in the development of the tulip into the world-wide phenomenon it is today.

No other flower has ever carried so much cultural baggage; it charts political upheavals, illuminates social behaviour, mirrors


THE TULIP is not a gardening book. It is the story of a flower that has made men mad. Greed, desire, anguish and devotion have all played their part in the development of the tulip into the world-wide phenomenon it is today.

No other flower has ever carried so much cultural baggage; it charts political upheavals, illuminates social behaviour, mirrors economic booms and busts, plots the ebb and flow of religious persecution.

Pavord tells how the tulip arrived from Turkey and took the whole of Western Europe by storm. Sumptuously illustrated from a wide range of sources, this beautifully produced and irresistible volume will become a bible, a unique source book, a universal gift book and a joy to all who possess it.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
The Tulip a meticulously researched and delightfully descriptive history of a flower that, as far back as the 13th century, has not only been inspiring poetry and drama but also charting political upheavals, illuminating social behavior, mirroring economic booms and busts, and plotting the ebb and flow of religious persecutions.

Throughout The Tulip, Anna Pavord, gardening correspondent for Britain's The Independent and the author of The Flowering Year and Gardening Companion, traces the history of the flower as best she can. She confesses that it is a particularly rebellious and "unruly genus," continually slipping "out from under the careful parameters laid by botanists and taxonomists" -- and perhaps historians as well. Her sources are the historical writings of each period as well as the art, tapestries, and other items on which the tulip has been depicted through the ages.

Although tulips were praised by Persian poets as early as the 13th century, they did not become the celebrated emblems they are today until the 15th and 16th centuries under the Ottoman Empire. Mesmerized by the splendid colors of the tulip and its mysterious ability to change colors and patterns, sultans began compulsively planting the brilliant flowers in gardens throughout Constantinople and in their own royal pleasure gardens and orchards. With the help of travelers, royal ambassadors from Europe, religious refugees, and curious botanists, the flowers were soon flourishing throughout Europe, especially in Holland, and eventually in the United States.

Pavord supplements her tribute to the tulip with full chapters on each variety, including height, appearance, region, origin, and planting instructions, as well as a chapter on garden tulips. She also includes a detailed "Chronology of Tulips."

Lara Webb is a freelance editor and author of The Best Friend's Guide to Getting Married.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This splendidly extravagant history is only the latest example of how far an obsession with Queen Tulipa can lead. Pavord (The Flowering Year), the gardening correspondent for the Independent, searched the world's libraries and archives and trekked over war-torn mountainsides to put together an astonishing bouquet of economic and cultural lore, grand historic trends and horticultural exotica. Her witty, frighteningly erudite story starts in Turkey, where Sultans of old held nightly entertainments in gardens lit by mirrored lanterns and required guests to dress in colors to match the tulips. Holland of 1634-1637 saw the famous Tulipomania, during which a single bulb could be traded for the price of the most expensive house in Amsterdam. Seventeenth-century French ladies of fashion wore tulips like jewels (and paid as much for them), and monographists puzzled endlessly over why plain blossoms could suddenly transform themselves into feathered and flamed curiosities. As for Enlightenment England, supposedly sensible people were not immune to the rage, and burgeoning florists' societies were dedicated to growing the flower in the island's wet and clammy soil. Though this isn't a how-to manual, gardeners will appreciate the encyclopedic descriptions of wild species and garden varieties of tulips. Lastly, the sumptuous illustrations covering five centuries of tulip-inspired art and artifacts will dazzle browsers and botanists alike. About much more than a lovely flower, this book will give readers a panoramic eyeful of culture, aesthetics, politics and economics--in short, the spectrum of human endeavor as revealed in the passage of the tulip through history.
Library Journal
Pavord (The New Kitchen Garden) has clearly been touched by some of the madness that appears throughout the history of the tulip, and her simple title belies the complexity of the story she tells. She traces the fascination for this flower from the first mania for its use in 14th-century Turkey to its evolution as a common garden flower. Using contemporary sources, which also supply some of the lavish illustrations, she documents the tulip's introduction to Western Europe in the 15th century. She also tells the personal stories of the gardeners who devoted their lives and fortunes to developing new varieties. The tulip's mysterious habit of "breaking" and developing new forms and colors was the basis for speculative crazes, first with the Dutch in the 17th century and then later the English and French, since the gardener who grew a desirable new variety could make a fortune. The second half of the book is a comprehensive listing and description of all tulip species as well as some of the 2600 varieties of garden tulips still in general cultivation. -- Daniel Starr, Museum of Modern Art Lib., New York
Kirkus Reviews
A disarming, captivating history of the tulip—a byzantine story rich in subtexts, from Pavord, gardening correspondent for the Independent in England (The Flowering Year). "What is this Toolip? A well complexion'd stink, an ill favour wrapt up in pleasant colours," muttered a contemptuous English gardener a few centuries back. He stood pretty much alone, as Pavord makes delightfully evident, for long before their introduction into western Europe during the 16th century, tulips were the hottest floral ticket around. Pavord details the background of the tulip, which is as flamboyant as the bloom itself: It is wild to a swath that cuts from Istanbul to Samarkand to Tienshan; it is feathered or flamed, nipped or spidery; a shape-shifter, it is drab one year, then wildly sexy the next, flushed with satiny green. The flower was an Ottoman fixation, an ever-present motif from common tile work to Suleyman's armor; it spawned floral societies-and poetry, artwork, and debate-300 years before the Dutch laid eyes on it. And tulips instantly besotted western Europe, arriving just in time to cash in on the Age of Curiosities, when the rare became stylish overnight. Pavord charts (and illustrates with 150 color plates) its rise to fame in France, England, Belgium, and the Netherlands; she traces the flower's appearance in paintings, literature, and botanical tracts; discusses how it commanded absurd prices and became an object of satire; details the tulip's abrupt fall from grace, only to be rescued from the aristocratic scrap heap by hobby florists.

Clearly, Pavord is smitten herself. Like the best of monomaniacs, she engages readers with her obsession and knows how to apply tongueto cheek: Any tulip worth inspection has "the need for a good shape and a good bottom." This floral portrait is alive with wonder; even the concluding catalogue raisonné of species is a work of passion.

From the Publisher

“Splendidly extravagant history...an astonishing bouquet of economic and cultural lore, grand historic trends and horticultural exotica.” —Publishers Weekly

“Visually stunning” —New Yorker

“Fascinating and sumptuous...an epic drama, a true tale that spans continents and centuries, shows humankind at its worst and its best, with heroes and villains galore.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“A wondrous account... remarkable.” —Seattle Weekly

“Verbally and visually ravishing book.” —House & Garden

The Tulip reads more like an adventure story, written against a backdrop of a 16th-and 17th-century Europe...” —Desert Sun

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Chapter One


BURIED DEEP in the make-up of the flamboyant, cultivated tulips that fill flower shops in spring, must be the ghostly genes of their wild cousins. Garden tulips did not leap, fully formed onto the horticultural scene. They can only have been bred from, or selected from the species scattered through Central Asia and the Caucasus. And a malleable species, such as T. schrenkii, is likely to have been a more useful building block than a species, such as T. butkovii, which shows relatively little variation in the wild. T. schrenkii grows in the steppes and semi-desert areas of the Crimea, the Lower Don, in the Caucasus and Kurdistan. Its narrow buds open into cup-shaped flowers that may be claret-red, or perhaps yellow, pink, or white. Sometimes different colours merge imperceptibly in the same flower, the red drifting into pink so subtly that no ordinary eye could ever distinguish where the one colour began and the other ended. The fusion between the two is cloaked and softened by the glaucous bloom that covers the backs of so many of the wild species tulips. Or is it perhaps the spectre of T. praecox that haunts the flowers produced now in tens of millions by the tulip growers of the Netherlands? T. praecox is an altogether bigger, beefier thing than the elegant T. schrenkii. It has thick, stout stems topped by orangey-red flowers. The inner petals are shorter and narrower than the pointed outer ones, and they are flamed with yellow up the midribs. It was first described (in 1811) by the Italian botanist Michele Tenorefrom flowers that he had found growing around Bologna in northern Italy. It is known in other places in southern Europe too: Provence, the Languedoc, the Rhône valley. But was it always here? Or was it, as seems more likely, since none of the early, busy botanisers of Europe wrote about it, brought here by travellers and traders from places further east? Turkey perhaps, or even Iraq. In Turkey this particular tulip was well known enough to have acquired the common name kaba lale. Or is T praecox perhaps not a true species at all, but the result of some early tulip lover's interest in improving the strains of wild flowers that he found growing about him? In genetic terms, the majority of wild tulips are diploids, with twenty-four chromosomes marching in harmony. But scientific investigation in the 1920s demonstrated that T. praecox is a triploid, with thirty-six chromosomes. Polyploidy of this kind is often a clue that, in nature's time scale at least, the plant is a relatively recent arrival. The one form arises out of the other.

    The questions cannot be answered because the tulip, more than any other flowering bulb, continually slips out from under the careful parameters laid down by botanists and taxonomists. The taxonomist's job is to pin labels on plants, each bearing a description that will enable anyone, from China to Czechoslovakia, to recognise how and why it is different from other members of its family. Often, taxonomists work from dried specimens, pressed and preserved on the dark, dusty shelves of a herbarium. But anyone who has seen tulips growing in the wild, notes the extraordinary diversity of flowers, even in a single colony of what must be a single species. Flowers of the Central Asian species T. borszczowii, for instance, growing along the banks of the Syr-Dar'ya river near Tashkent may be yellow, orange or vermilion. T. armena, widely spread in Turkey and northwest Iran, would be described by a taxonomist as a medium-sized, bright red tulip with a rather small black blotch at the base of its petals. But a group growing on the side of the road between Askale and Tercan, in eastern Turkey, includes flowers that are striped with yellow on the red ground. Some that are all red have no basal blotches at all. What is a taxonomist to do with such an unruly genus? The splitters among them elevated variants to the rank of yet more species. A strong-growing yellow form of T. armena found in the Transcaucasus and the mountains of Armenia was christened T. mucronata. A pale yellow form, tinged with olive on the backs of its petals became T. galatica. Another yellow-flowered type growing around Amasya in northern Anatolia, with a bluish, rather than a blackish blotch at its base, was dubbed T. lutea by the Bohemian botanist and engineer Josef Freyn (1845-1903).

    Poor Freyn! In the long-drawn-out game of leap-frog between tulip and taxonomist, the tulip was always going to win. Its extraordinary diversity, its desire always to be trying on new clothes, is precisely what made it a source of wonder and delight to the gardeners who over hundreds of years gradually nursed it into shapes and shades that even the tulips themselves had not thought of. The family is still in a state of flux, but about 120 different species are thought to be spread over the Old World, three-quarters of them concentrated in Central Asia. In the New World, they did not exist until man took them there. From their hotbed, bounded by the Tien Shan and the Pamir-Alai mountain ranges, tulips spread northwards through mountains and steppes to the regions of Pribalkhash and Altai, halted eventually by the extreme cold of the Arctic. To the south, they moved in the direction of the Himalayas and Kashmir. Most extensive was their migration westwards, where they were no doubt helped on by merchants on the well-travelled trade routes which led from Central Asia into Europe. Tulips spread towards Syr-Dar'ya, the steppes of Karakum, the Hindu Kush and Turkmenistan, to Iranian Khorasan and then through northwest Iran to the Caucasus. From the Caucasus, migration continued westwards into the Balkans and from there to Italy, France, Spain and the Atlas Mountains of northwest Africa.

     As the tulip march had been halted to the north by cold, here it was stopped by the inhospitable heat of the desert. Desert met them too in Israel, where tulips had moved south from the Caucasus through Syria, Iraq and the Lebanon. Nineteenth-century travellers in Kashgaria and Dzungaria, the areas east of the heartland, reported seeing the same species here as in the Tien Shan. Some species also have been found in the Kiangsi, Hupeh and Shantung provinces of China. About fourteen different species grow in the mountains of Turkey, though only four of these, T. armena, T. biflora, T. humilis and T. julia are thought to be indigenous. When it had subjugated the Turks, the tulip jumped the Bosphorus and continued its slow journey to the west, travelling with traders, explorers, even in the diplomatic baggage of envoys such as Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, to reach gardens in Italy, Austria, Germany and Flanders by the middle of the sixteenth century.

    Before that, it seems to have been unknown outside its natural habitat. No tulips appear in the flower-strewn borders of the medieval manuscripts of Europe. When Hugo van der Goes (c1440-1482) painted his Portinari altarpiece, dark aquilegias, bright red lilies, blue and white iris and a scatter of violas were prominently displayed in the foreground, but there were no tulips. The botanist Conrad Gesner, describing in 1559 a red tulip growing in Councillor Herwart's Augsburg garden, made clear that this was a grand event — as far as he was concerned, a first. But as far back as the thirteenth century, the tulip was being celebrated by Persian poets such as Musharrifu'd-din Sa'adi. In Gulistan he described his visionary garden where `The murmur of a cool stream / bird song, ripe fruit in plenty / bright multicoloured tulips and fragrant roses ...' created a paradise on earth for its fortunate owner. `O cup bearer, serve us the wine soon, before the tulips wither,' wrote another poet. `The flames in our fireplaces are the tulip gardens of winter.' Tulips are commemorated in Turkish place names such as Laleli (place of the tulips) near Erzerum, and Laleli gecidi (tulip pass) between Kayseri and Sivas. There were grimmer references too. On St Vitus' Day, 15 June 1389, the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Murad I fought the Serbian ruler Prince Lazar and his Bosnian allies at Kossovo Field, a high plateau sixty miles north of Skopje. A Turkish chronicler compared the battlefield, strewn with heads and turbans to a huge bed of tulips, the vivid yellow and red head-dresses mirroring the equally vivid and varied colours of the flowers.

    The tulip flourished spectacularly in the later Ottoman Empire, appearing as a motif on tiles, textiles, illuminated manuscripts, miniatures, headstones, prayer rugs and murals. But it does not appear at all on artefacts of the earlier Byzantine era. This is more likely to be because they did not value the tulip than because they were unfamiliar with it, though the anonymous writer of the Defter-i Lalezar-i Istanbul, the `Book of Tulip Gardens in Istanbul', does say that before the Seljuk invasion of Baghdad in 1055 only one kind of tulip, the Sahra-i Lale, or meadow tulip, was known in Istanbul. They were certainly known to the Seljuks who from the eleventh century onwards migrated west from their tribal lands in Central and Northeast Asia through Iran, Mesopotamia, and Syria. In 1096, they captured Konya in Inner Anatolia and tiles decorated with tulips, made by Anatolian Seljuks, have been excavated from the Palace of Alaeddin Keykubad I on the shores of Lake Beysehir.

    In the relatively settled period following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, tulips flourished in the gardens laid out by Sultan Mehmed II (1451-1481), who remade great tracts of the city. He built himself a palace, the Topkapi Saray, on one of Constantinople's seven hills, and laid out pleasure gardens inside the city's courtyards. Surplus flowers from the Sultan's twelve gardens were regularly sold in the flower markets and eventually a staff of 920 gardeners was needed to maintain his orchards, kitchen gardens and vast pleasure grounds. In his Treatise on Husbandry, Qasim ibn Yuruf Abu Nasri Haravi gave precise instructions for laying out such gardens. Water channels and pavilions, he wrote, should be enclosed within lines of poplars. For each bed in the pleasure garden, Qasim suggested different flowers: colchicums with violets, roses with narcissus and saffron crocus, Persian lilac with tulips and mauve stocks. The beds nearest the house were often filled with roses, sacred in Islam as the flower which sprang from Mohammed's sweat.

    In this culture, only particular flowers were valued: hyacinths, roses, jonquils, irises, carnations, and of course, tulips. Derived from the Persian, the Turkish word for tulip — lale — was written with the same Arabic letters as were used for the name of Allah, so the flower was often used as a religious symbol. Carved as a decorative device on buildings or fountains, it was the immediately recognisable emblem of the ruling House of Osman. Early manuscripts make it clear though that the different types of tulips in gardens `occurred' rather than being specifically bred, as happened under later Ottoman emperors. As Victorian fern fans enthusiastically collected from the wild strangely aberrant forms of hart's-tongues and lady ferns with crinkled edges and tasselled ends, so curiosities in the enormous family of tulips must have been collected from the wild and brought into cultivation in Ottoman gardens. The historian Hodja Hasan Efendi, who accompanied Sultan Murad IV on his Eastern expedition, brought seven kinds of tulip back from Persia to raise in his garden in Istanbul.

    Under Süleyman the Magnificent (c1495-1566), the Ottoman Empire reached its apogee, the zenith of its political and military power. It stretched from the Crimea to Egypt and covered a large part of the Balkans. Ottoman dynasties ruled in Bukhara and Samarkand and the warrior-gardener Mohammed Babur took control of Afghanistan and India. Wherever Babur went on his restless pilgrimage through Asia, he made gardens linked by a common Islamic tradition, derived ultimately from Persia. This tradition determined the kinds of plants he put in his gardens and Babur's own journal lists the trees and flowers he particularly favoured. He liked fruit trees of all kinds, poplar, willow, jasmine, narcissus, violets and tulips. Before he died in 1530, he visited the tulip fields around Samarkand, having already planted tulips in all the gardens he had made in Turkey and India. Miniatures painted in the Beyan-i Menazil-i Sefer-i Irakeyn by Matrakci Nasuh illustrate the places that his victorious armies passed through on their campaigns. One reveals tulips, growing in the wild near Konya. Another shows the tulip growing as a cultivated flower in a convent garden at Seyitgazi near Eskisehir.

    From the sixteenth century onwards, the tulip became an integral part of Ottoman culture, universally employed as an ornamental motif. They were embroidered in rows on Süleyman the Magnificent's gowns of cream satin brocade. Even his armoured champron bears the emblem of a tulip, embossed on the gilded metal. Tulips also featured prominently on the pottery and particularly the tiles of the period, which are such a spectacular feature of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and the upper galleries of the city's mosques. The designs reflected the way that these tiles were often used in Ottoman buildings to cover entire walls and were often built up from groups of four tiles, each with a quarter of the central motif printed in one corner. Tulips first appeared on Iznik ceramics between about 1535 and 1540; sometimes the flowers were shown as though they were growing in a garden, sometimes as single blooms displayed in small vases. European travellers had already noted this particularly Turkish custom: to present a single, perfect bloom in a narrow-necked container or laledan. The earliest tiles were decorated with simple blue and turquoise glazes, but later, sage green, an opaque yellow and violet were added to the palette. The superb, singing red that could have been created especially for the tulip, appears around 1560, but lasted only until the end of the century.

    The nakkasan (designers, painters, decorators, illuminators) of the imperial studios had a great influence on the work of other artists and craftsmen in the capital. As their designs spread, a new national style was established, different and separate from Persian-based art. Tulips bloomed everywhere, painted with the same three confident brush strokes to create an elegant, waisted flower with petals that flipped out at the top. These tulips are altogether more comfortable, rounded creatures than the etiolated, starved flowers preferred under the later reign of Sultan Ahmed III. Sometimes they are painted in the entirely appropriate bole-red colour that distinguishes pottery of this period. But just as often, they appear bright blue, one of the few stunts that the real tulip cannot perform. A similar, strange blue was used by European artists such as Joris Hoefnagel, who produced the first paintings of the tulip in Europe at much the same time as the Iznik ware was being made. The tulips that appear on Iznik plates and tiles, tankards and jugs are most often underglazed in a single colour. Sometimes though, the potters painted the petals with stippled designs in contrasting colours. Were they perhaps copying the broken tulips that florists came to admire so extravagantly?

    The French traveller and botanist, Pierre Belon, who was in Turkey and the Levant for three years from 1546, wrote admiringly of Turkish gardens, saying that there were `no people who delight more to ornament themselves with beautiful flowers, nor who praise them more than the Turks'. The English traveller, George Sandys (1578-1644), youngest son of the Archbishop of York, was more dyspeptic. `You cannot stirre abroad,' he wrote of his Turkish adventures, `but you shall be presented by the Dervishes and Janizaries with tulips and trifles'. Seyhulislam Ebusuud (1490-1573) was one of the first of the Ottoman florists to specialise in tulips, introducing one of the great favourites of contemporary gardens, the Nur-i Adn, or `Light of Paradise'. The different tulips available in Turkey in the sixteenth century were illustrated in a painted mural decorating the walls of the fine Tulip Kiosk, which once overhung the Bosphorus at Anadolu Hissar. It was built, not by the Sultan himself, but by one of his Grand Viziers, desperate to curry favour with his master. Sultan Selim II was a besotted gardener. In 1574, he ordered the Sheriff of Aziz (now Azez in Syria, 7km south of the Turkish frontier) to send him 50,000 tulip bulbs for the imperial gardens at Constantinople. These must have been species tulips, gathered from the wild to be used in mass plantings. Another 300,000 bulbs were despatched for the palace gardens from Kefe (now Feodosiya in the Ukraine). Needless to say, the Sultan never had to put his hand in his own pocket to pay for his passions. However, high prices were paid for particular kinds of unusual tulip. In Turkey (and later in Holland) laws had to be enforced to bring speculation under control. The Sultan ordered the Mayor of Istanbul to publish fixed prices for the most sought-after tulips; anyone who tried to sell bulbs at a higher price was expelled from the city. Transgressors were lucky to get off so lightly. The Sultan's high-ranking head gardener was also his chief executioner.

    Later Sultans continued to demand equally vast quantities of bulbs from their subordinates in the provinces. `Orders to the Administrator of Maras' wrote Sultan Murad III, who ruled from 1574-1595. `Since there are no hyacinth bulbs in the palace gardens, you are ordered to collect 50,000 white hyacinths and 50,000 skyblue hyacinths from the hyacinth colonies growing in the mountains and highlands of Maras. And because of the urgency of the matter, you are ordered to do the following:

    `Dispatch youths who are knowledgeable of flowers into the region and send them out with people who can be trusted to gather the above amount of hyacinth bulbs with all haste. Once obtained, hand them to ones dispatched under my orders and bring the bulbs to the castle gate of the town. Also write to inform me how many bulbs you could obtain. Those who brought bulbs can demand payment according to the numbers brought. The foregoing is of extreme importance. Strive to make efforts and be careful. Avoid sloth or carelessness. Emperor's Order, the year 1001 of the Islamic calendar, the 7th day of the month of Sa'ban [9 May 1593].' Similar orders had already gone out to the Governor of Uzeyr in Aleppo. But how did the poor collectors tell the flowers apart when they were out of bloom and ready to dig up? The whisk of the executioner's axe must have been echoing very loud in their ears as they packed up the bulbs for their long journey to the capital from the wilds of southern Anatolia.

    A miniature of 1582 from the Surname by the Ottoman artist, Osman, celebrates the circumcision of Sultan Murad III's heir, Prince Mehmed, when, according to contemporary accounts, the feasting went on for fifty-two days. The Surname miniatures indicate how sophisticated the cultivation of tulips must have been in Turkey at this time. One shows a procession of turbaned Turks carrying towering pagodas (like huge tulip vases), each one sprouting a cargo of red tulips. In another illustration, bands of gardeners carry entire miniature gardens, about nine feet square, built on flat platforms. They are decorated with clipped evergreens and miniature garden buildings. Cages of canaries hang from the fruit trees and long, thin-flowered tulips are planted formally in the borders. Contemporary accounts suggest that the gardens may have been made entirely from wax or marzipan.

    This devotion to tulips was not confined to the rulers in Constantinople. Sir Thomas Herbert, who travelled in Iran between 1627 and 1628, described one of many gardens made by Shah 'Abbas, this one in a desert near Isfahan. Between stone pools lined with marble, flourished peaches, pomegranates, plums and pears, all underplanted with damask roses, tulips and other flowers. A similar scene is captured in an Indian miniature of c1685, where a garden pavilion overlooks a central water canal. Either side figs, pomegranates and mangos are planted in a geometric grid, the grass underneath them lit up with narcissi and tulips. Throughout the whole of the Mogul period in India, following the great Babur's victory at Panipat in 1526, gardens flourished. Babur's own favourite garden was at Kabul. His great-grandson, the Emperor Jahangir, an equally obsessive and gifted maker of gardens, favoured Kashmir. `In the soul enchanting spring', he noted on a visit to Kashmir in 1620, `the hills and plains are filled with blossoms; the gates, the walls, the courts, the roofs are lighted up by the torches of banquet-adorning tulips.' Jahangir engaged the artist Ustad Mansur to paint a hundred of his favourite flowers, including some superb red tulips which look like the wild species T. lanata. T. lanata is a Central Asian tulip, probably introduced into Kashmir by the Moguls during the sixteenth century and much planted on the roofs of mosques. Mansur's painting shows four of the tulips, each at a different stage of development, from bud to full-blown flower, contained within an intricate double border. He noted the characteristic pale midrib that often runs from tip to base of tulip petals, usually more prominent on the outer surface than the inner. The image, superbly detailed, must have been painted from life, but it was not always so. Some Indian miniatures show tulips that seem to have been copied from the illustrations in early European books such as those published by Rembert Dodoens in 1569 and Clusius in 1576. One, painted c1635 by the Mogul artist, Balchand, shows the three sons of Shah Jehan riding out together, the whole scene contained in a rich border of flowers. The stocky red tulip in the top right-hand corner of the border is extraordinarily like the tulip iillustrated by Conrad Gesner in his Appendix to Cordus's Annotationes of 1561. Another miniature of the same period centres on a splendid turkey, the brilliant red of his wattles echoed in the colour of the delicate tulip to his left. Was the painter, like Mansur, painting from life? Or was he copying a strikingly similar tulip illustrated in Clusius's Rariorum aliquot Stirpium of 1583. Later, in China and Japan, ceramicists also plundered European originals for motifs. Tulips in rigid bouquets copied from the flower paintings of artists such as Jan Brueghel and Jacques de Gheyn began to appear in the early eighteenth century as motifs on the export porcelain known as Chine de Commande. Tulips glittered in gold with pink carnations, roses and botanically impossible daffodils.

By the 1630s, the traveller, Evliya Celebi, estimated that there were at least 300 florists based in and around Istanbul as well as about eighty flower shops. He also noted how richly the gardens along the Bosphorus were planted with tulips, many of them popular destinations for visitors making excursions by boat from the capital. The meadows at Kâgithane, where two streams ran into the Golden Horn, were particularly famous for their display of tulips, `intoxicating', Celebi said, in their season. He also mentions `Kefe' tulips, that is, tulips from Kefe (Feodosiya) a name that was known in western Europe too. Clusius (Charles de l'Ecluse 1526-1609), the first director of the botanic garden at Leiden in Holland, also talked of the Cafe lale and the same tulip appeared in the 1630 list of flowers grown by Sultan Murad IV (1609-1640). He had fifty-six different kinds of tulip; some were so scarce that even the Sultan himself could not get hold of more than one bulb. But during this period, there was a marked increase in the number of different varieties available and Turkish florists-in-chief were already setting up councils (encumen-i danis-i sukufe) to judge the new tulips being bred by the country's florists. In a system adopted later by early European florists, only the best flowers were given distinguishing and official names. Sari Abdullah Efendi was florist-in-chief (ser sukufeci) to the Sultan Ibrahim who ruled from 1640 to 1648, but it was Sultan Mehmed IV, ruler for the next forty years, who brought the system to perfection. Only the most flawless cultivars were entered into the official tulip list, each appearing with a description and the name of the grower who had bred the flower. The Council even had its own research laboratory, where new cultivars could be assessed in a more leisurely way.

    Once Turkish florists started to breed their own tulips, rather than select the best of what nature offered in the wild (and this was now happening in the West as well as the East), the flower was shaped in a very particular way. In western Europe, tulip lovers favoured a rounded, cup-shaped flower, well marked with contrasting colours. The Turkish florists' standards were equally uncompromising, but they favoured tall thin tulips, narrowly contoured and made up of dagger-shaped petals. The petals themselves had to be of good texture — stiff yet smooth — and of one colour. Each of the six petals had to be the same size and length. In a perfect flower, the petals would conceal the stamens, with no gaps between them, but the pistil would just be visible. The flower had to stand erect on its stem, thin and well balanced. The shape of the petals was the cause of most concern. Tulip breeders always selected strains with narrow, pointed petals. Daggers and needles were what they wanted. `If the tulip has not these petal characters' wrote an early pundit, `it is a cheap flower. The tulip with the needle end is the better of the two; if it has both the dagger shape and the needle point, it is priceless'. There was an equally rigid list of defects in a flower. A flawed tulip was one with a soft stalk and scattered, dull, loose, irregular petals. Sometimes — a characteristic inherited from many wild tulips — the inner petals were broader and shorter than the outer ones. This was a fault too. Evaluating the new cultivars was a long and difficult job. But if a tulip did manage to get onto the magic list, it was universally fêted. Poets wrote couplets to the debutante flowers, celebrating their beauty and form. Prizes were given for the best verses, as well as to the breeders of the best flowers. Even the most resourceful poet might be stumped by the prosaic names — `Goudstuk', `Hit Parade', `Mickey Mouse' — of some modern tulip cultivars but Turkish tulips were given wonderfully evocative names — `Those that Burn the Heart', `Matchless Pearl'. That helped. So did the fact that lale, the Turkish word for tulip, happened to rhyme with piyale, a wine glass. The wine metaphor was squeezed to the last drop. The names themselves were often Arabic or Persian — Nize-i rummani (Pomegranate lance), Peymane-i Gulgun (Rose-coloured Glass), Ferah-efza (Increaser of Joy), only occasionally Turkish — Buyuk al (Big Scarlet), Ikbal Yildizi (Star of Felicity). The wonderfully extravagant tags — `Delicate Coquette', `Slim One of the Rose Garden', `Light of the Mind', `Diamond's Envy', `Beloved's Face' — were a testament to the esteem in which the tulips themselves were held.

    But how did this almond-shaped, dagger-petalled tulip arise? What wild species contributed to its singular conformation? In shape it is closest to the spidery-petalled T. acuminata. But that tulip, although given species status, is actually unknown in the wild and is generally supposed to be itself a garden tulip. The needle-pointed Turkish tulip did not necessarily come from any of the fourteen wild-species tulips to be found in the country for, by the mid-seventeenth century, the tide of the tulip trade had turned. The first tulips seen in western Europe had arrived there from Turkey, but in 1651 the Austrian Ambassador, Schmid von Schwarzenhorn, brought forty tulips of ten different varieties from Europe into Istanbul as a gift for the Emperor Mehmed IV. They continued to be grown in Turkey under their Austrian names and Mehmed Efendi, the author of the Lalezari Ibrahim (1726) said that the whole development of what became known as the Istanbul tulip with its thin dagger-petalled flowers, originated with those ten varieties. Others, too, believed that the Turkish tulip had been created with the gubari tali — literally fertilisation powder or more prosaically pollen — from the European bulbs. Tulips also arrived in Turkey from Crete (probably the mauve-flowered T. saxatilis) and were noted by an Italian traveller, Dr Bennetti, in his diary of 1680: `In the garden of the house at which a dinner was given to me at Eyoub on the Golden Horn, were magnificent tulips growing three or four on a stem. They are imported from Crete'. M H Hoog, a Dutch authority on tulips, has argued that the long thin-petalled species T. schrenkii from the steppe regions of the Crimea, brought to Istanbul under the name `Kefe tulip', must have played a part in the breeding of the Istanbul tulip. It was from Kefe in the Ukraine that Sultan Selim II had ordered 300,000 tulips to be despatched for the palace gardens. And sixty years later, the historian Hodja Hasan Efendi, who in 1638 was with Sultan Murad IV on his expedition to Baghdad, brought back seven different kinds of tulip to grow in his Istanbul garden. Out of this great melting pot of species and their variants, the Istanbul tulip somehow emerged.


Meet the Author

Anna Pavord is the gardening correspondent for THE INDEPENDENT and the author of widely praised gardening books including PLANT PARTNERS and THE BORDER BOOK. She wrote for the OBSERVER for twenty years, has contributed to COUNTRY LIFE, ELLE DECORATION and COUNTRY LIVING, and is an associate editor of GARDENS ILLUSTRATED. For the last thirty years she has lived in Dorset, England where she is currently making a new garden. Constantly experimenting with new combinations of flowers and foliage, she finds it a tremendous source of inspiration.

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