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Ch. 4

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CHAPTER V
THE ARISTOCRAT OF THE BULB GARDENS

THE Tulip is the aristocrat of bulbs, the one with whose name is connected squandered fortunes, romantic tales, long history, and other attributes of traditional aristocracy. It is also the one which, more than any, has made Holland famous. To go to see the bulb gardens usually means to go to Haarlem towards the latter part of April, when the tulips are at their best and there are literally acres of flowers. A patch of seven hundred square metres of scarlet tulips, and beyond perhaps as much of yellow or white, and beyond, with nothing but a hedge between, others, yet others, everywhere. -- It is a wonderful sight. Red tulips and purple tulips, rose colour, buff colour, yellow and white and streaked. Though it must be said the streaked tulips are less than they were, for they are somewhat out of fashion now; it is the plain-coloured varieties which are most in favour, more especially the late "cottage" sorts. In earlier days, in the time of the tulip mania -- at its height about 1634 to 1637 -- the fashion was for variegated tulips, and the enormous prices that were given were for streaked and pencilled, late blooming, single flowers; and the more they were striped, violet and rose on a pure white ground, the more was paid for them. The following description of what a tulip should be was written between 1790 and 1797; the prices by then had dropped to comparative moderation, but the standard of beauty was much the same: "The colours in greatest estimation in variegated tulips are the blacks, golden yellow, purple violets, and rose, and vermilion, each of which being variegated various ways; and such as are striped in three different colours distinct and unmixed, with strong regular streaks, but with little or no tinge of the breeder, may be called the most perfect tulip." Some of the varieties famous in the early days are still grown in Holland, Louis the XVI. and the notorious Semper Augustus, one bulb of which is said, at the height of the madness, to have been sold for as much as 18,000 florins, though the price dropped to fifty when a paternal government stepped in and put an end to the gamble. Now, though these two historic names are still known and the bulbs still grown, neither flower is of great repute for beauty, and, generally speaking, neither would be so much admired as the self-coloured sorts -- the scarlet Gesneriana spathulata, with its intense blue-black centre, the snow-white Dora, or even the insignificant little red flower, for a single bulb of which eight guineas was asked in London not many years ago. Asked and readily paid too; from which, one may conclude, the real tulip mania is not quite dead, though, of course, the price is a mere trifle compared to those paid in the early eighteenth century, or even as late as the beginning of the nineteenth, when, it is reported, a florist of Amsterdam paid £640 for the bulb of a new species, The Citadel of Antwerp. This last man must have been either a cultivator or a collector buying for the sake of having the bulb, for by then the gamble, which largely made the great mania what it was, had long passed away. When the mania was at its height men obviously did not buy for that reason. The madness, which then inexplicably affected so large a part of the steady Dutch nation, was more nearly related to a Stock Exchange gamble than a collector's craze; though one cannot help thinking that, without the real existence of the latter the former would not have been possible, at least not in that manifestation.

There are still many tales told of that time, some supported with sufficient evidence, some resting on report, all equally remarkable. To the first class belongs that which can be found in the registers of the city of Alkmaar, where in 1687 there is an entry of the sale of tulips for the benefit of the Orphan Hospital, when 120 bulbs were sold for 9000 florins -- a florin then about represented a bushel of wheat, so the approximate equivalent of that sum in modern money is rather startling even for gambling prices. To the latter class of tales belongs that of the man who believed himself to be the possessor of a unique tulip, and, hearing that there was another like it in Haarlem, repaired to that city, bought the bulb at great cost and crushed it with his foot, so that his tulip should really be unique. There is the other tale of the sailor, who, having been given a raw herring at the kitchen door of a rich merchant and a tulip fancier, picked up some roots which were lying outside, cooked them with it, and ate them, thinking them to be onions, and unaware that they were priceless tulips. Which last story is somewhat hard to believe, for if the rich merchant and tulip fancier was anything like the Dutchmen of to-day, he would not have left his priceless bulbs lying about, either by his kitchen door or anywhere else. And if the sailor ;vas so really foolish as, at that time when tulips were the things of moment, to mistake an uncooked one for an onion, he would have been better informed about a cooked one. He would not, as according to the tale he did, have needed enlightening by the merchant, who is narrated to have exclaimed, after the event: "Inconsiderate man! Thou hast ruined me with thy breakfast! I could have regaled a king with it!" If the king had been so regaled, at least with cooked tulips, it is possible the royal pleasure would not have been great, for tulips, according to those who have tried them, are very poor eating. Parkinson, certainly, says they are pleasant, though truth compels him to qualify the statement by adding, "at least, not unpleasant." He, by his own account, tried them preserved in sugar, and apparently did not persevere with his experiment, as he ascribes no medicinal value to them.

It is the custom to say that the romance of tulip-growing has gone; it is wonderful how often Romance is announced as dead and gone, a many-lived thing one must think it to need so many death-knells. Tulip-growing now, it is said, is a mere commercial enterprise, a growing without interest of hundreds of thousands of the cheapest sorts and selling them for the best price obtainable; no longer any interest or individuality in it, no one thinking or caring for new sorts or history, or anything but price per hundred. It may be; romance is a strange thing; whether the term is applied to flower or adventure, callings or institutions, it does not really refer to the concerned actors and doers, but to the sentiments and opinions of the unconcerned lookers-on. These unconcerned at one time had a craze for tulips, -- then tulips were romantic; now they are not, and romance is gone. Now these folk merely order, or let their gardeners order, so many red and so many white, so many double, single, striped, or plain. There is no more romance now to them in tulip producing and buying than in grocery producing and buying: that is to say, they talk little more about the one than the other, their horticultural conversation is now centred on hybrid teas and herbaceous borders. It was not so a hundred years ago, tulips were then in fashion. In an old miscellany of that time there is a delightful conversation on the tulip subject, the writer purporting to have overheard a talk between two people he could not see on the behaviour and condition of persons of importance. Very strange behaviour it sounded-how a crowned head was feeling the weather, how a favourite general was doing well, seeing his situation, and, finally, how one speaker would show the other a Painted Lady and a Chimney Sweep in the same bed. The writer describes himself as hastening after to share the sight, and as being delighted to find the conversation referred to nothing scandalous, but to "the beautiful vegetables" then in fashion. He may have been delighted, we can give him the benefit of the doubt -- possibly he did not frequent country houses and large suburban villas. He could hardly have done so, else the talk would not have had the charm of novelty for him, for wheresoever two or three glove-gardeners are gathered together -- or even where there is only one -- the specific names of varieties of the flower then in fashion fall like rain on the interested and uninterested alike.

Not that the Dutch grower has any quarrel with the glove-gardeners, he has none at all; if the trend of fashion prevents them from buying expensive and choice tulips, it also prevents them from caring for the ones they do buy, and so necessitates the frequent replenishing of their stock. They are the grower's chief purchasers, and though he feels a little hurt when they, ignoring his plain directions for cultivation, and getting poor results in consequence, complain of the quality of his bulbs, he never gainsays their taste in varieties. On the contrary, he compiles his catalogue to what he thinks is their fancy, and grows by the acre whatever they and their gardeners ordain to be beautiful. But the real interest and life of bulb-growing did not begin with the enthusiasm of folk of this kind, nor did it die when that died. The true grower still feels a holy joy over a new streak of colour, a new shape of petal; he still has his collectors over the world looking for novelties; he still sows and hybridises, and patiently and intelligently works, and feels the connoisseur's satisfaction in success, his own or another's.

Tulips are grown in Holland to-day much as they were two hundred years ago. The land is very deeply worked in winter, so that the frost may penetrate and kill mice and other vermin; also if, as is not often the case round Haarlem, the ground is stiff to soften it fit for the bulbs. In the spring it is manured: for tulips there is not such heavy manuring as for hyacinths, these last are by far the fattest liking of all the bulbs. It is possible, in fact it is often advisable, to grow tulips one year on the ground which was used for hyacinths the year before, this without any further enriching. After the spring manuring many of the bulb fields are let to market men, who grow vegetables there, but with the understanding that all must be removed and the ground cleared in August, for, though tulips are not put in until the end of September, some other bulbs are planted earlier, so the rule is usually made to apply to all fields. The tulip bulbs are set by hand, four or five inches apart and four inches below the surface, and left untouched until it is time to cover them with straw for the winter. The covering in their case is very light, not more than half an inch thick, for tulips are perfectly hardy, and need no protection from the cold; but the sandy soil is so light that, unless something were put on it, it would be blown away in the high winds and the bulbs left bare. The flowering time covers a good while, beginning in mild springs with Duc van Tholl in the early days of March, and ending with the late-blooming May varieties well on in that month. There is one rare specimen of tulip from Central Asia, Tulipa kaufmanniana, which flowers in Holland in February, but as yet this is not widely grown. It is, unfortunately, necessary to cut off the flower heads of all varieties, excepting such as are being saved for seed, before their beauty is quite spent. Happily, however, the cutting does not have to be done too soon after the opening, unless the weather is very rainy. Wet engenders some disease in the flower, which goes downwards and infects the roots unless the blooms are cut off in time. They are usually cut stalkless, really beheaded; rows of them so treated are rather a woeful sight, although the delicate colour of their broad leaves makes the gardens where they are still beautiful. In June they are taken out of the ground. The new young bulbs are found to be developed from within the old, which gradually shrivel away to give room to the young; in nothing of the parent left but which can be removed by hand.

New varieties are usually though some are sports; there such now, a fine yellow tulip, the end there is a few hard scales, raised from seed, is at Haarlem one which, a few years ago, "sported" from a well-known red variety; the man who owns it found it when the bulbs were in bloom. It is not a "rogue" but a true bulb, in leaf and flower representing the old red type, only in colour yellow instead of red.

The ways of seedling tulips are rather strange; when they first flower, which is sometimes not till they are as much as seven years old, they are usually self-coloured. But in a few years' time they "break," that is, the flowers are no longer self-coloured but variegated. When this will happen it is not possible to foretell, sometimes, most usually, within two or three years of first blooming; sometimes, though not often, not till after five-and-twenty or thirty years. The reason of this remarkable peculiarity does not seem to be clearly understood. Parkinson, it is true, offers one: "All such flowers not having their originall in that manner (for some that have such or the like marks from the beginning, that is, from the first and second years flowering, are constant, and doe not change), but as I said, were of one colour at the first, do show the weakness and decay of the roots, and this extraordinary beauty in the flower, is but as the brightness of a light, upon the very extinguishing thereof, and doeth plainly declare that it can doe his master no more service, and therefore with this jollity doth bid him goodnight." Unfortunately modern experience proves this to be incorrect, for the variegation when produced usually continues without reversion to the self-coloured original for an indefinite length of time. There are certain distinct types in the variegations. Robinson describes them as follows: "A feathered tulip has the colour finely pencilled round the margin of the petals, the base of the flowers being pure; in a "Flamed" flower stripes of colour descend from the top of the petals towards the base. In the Bizarres the colours are red, brownish-red, chestnut and maroon, the base being clear yellow; in the Bybloomens the colours are black and various shades of purple, the base being white; and in the Roses, rose of various shades, and also deep red or scarlet, the base being white again." Most of which variegations, though still much appreciated by some people, have not the place in popular admiration they had two hundred years ago, or even as recently as one hundred, some of the authors of which period give simple directions for the helping of nature in "effecting the marvellous work of breaking the breeding tulip into diversified colours."

Seeing the admiration of these connoisseurs of the past for streaked tulips it is surprising we hear little or nothing of the Parrot (Tulipa turcica). In some form it must have been in existence at the time of the mania, for Parkinson, writing earlier, mentions among his "mean flowering tulips" something which appears to be it. It is classed as a subdivision of the "Yellow Fool's Coat" tulip, and is described as "of a paler or yellowish green passed with yellow and called the Parret, with white edges."

Striped or streaky flowers appear always to have been the florist's ambition. Nature, in the general way, is not much addicted to the unaided production thereof; probably it is for that reason that growers have always regarded them as choice. As far back as Shakespeare's time pied or striped flowers would seem to have been the choicest; "the favourite flowers o' the season," Perdita says, "are our carnations and streaked gilly'vors." The taste of the general public on the subject may vary -- a Perdita of to-day would not feel it necessary, as Shakespeare's Perdita did, to apologise for not growing the admired streaked gillyflowers; but the taste of the florist is more faithful, he knows the art of the thing. It is he, also, who truly appreciates the double flower. Nature of herself does not very often double flowers, man invariably doubles every kind he can so soon as he takes it into cultivation. Tulips have been doubled very long, and were at one time much admired, though they are thought less of now. In England, at all events, they meet with comparatively little patronage, excepting a few dwarf sorts used for forcing and for carpet-bedding, and some large white ones which, when wide open, find a place in bouquets and floral trophies, where they look rather like peonies.

The history of the origin of the tulip as we have it is somewhat lost in mist. Robinson says Tulipa suaveolens from South Russia is now regarded as the type of the numerous early flowering tulips (Duc van Tholl, etc.), but the finer, later forms, which open in May, have all come from Tulipa Gesneriana. Some of the Dutch growers, on the other hand, regard the Gesneriana as the parent of all the garden forms; which also seems to be the opinion of some of the eighteenth-century English writers, who give Cappadocia as the home of the bulb. Various native lands have been ascribed to it: Turkey, South Russia, Asia Minor, and what is called "the Levant " -- in bulb history a wide and vague locality -- have all been suggested as the source from which we derived it. But from wherever it came to us, it seems likely that the original home of the bulb was Persia; from whence probably it spread to all the above countries, if not before historic times, at least very long ago. Tulips have long been known and admired in Persia; they were dearly as much a commonplace of poetry in the time of Omar Khayyam as the nightingale and the rose --

the Tulip for her wonted sup
Of Heavenly Vintage lifts her chalice up --

he writes, or we presume he writes, since the lines with very little variation appear in all editions of the Quatrains.

The tulip is said in the East to be regarded as a symbol of declared love. The writer of my grandmother's Language of Flowers is less agreeable in his symbolism. "On account of the elegance of its form," he says, "the beauty of its colours, but its want of fragrance and other useful qualities, this flower has been considered as an appropriate symbol of a female who possesses no other recommendation than personal charms." Which is rather severe, and inclines one to suggest that the good man, if he really felt that a flower should possess useful qualities, might have tried this one, as was recommended in the early seventeenth century, for "cricke in the neck." The eastern lover more poetically symbolised the condition of his love-inflamed face and burning heart by the gift to his adored of the flower:

Whose leaves with their crimson glow
Hide the heart that lies burning and black below.

From the description it is clear that the Persian tulip was self-coloured and red, possibly something like the Gesneriana spathulata.

The date of its coming to Western Europe is not much more certain than the actual place from whence it came. The introduction has been ascribed to Busbecq, ambassador from the Emperor Maximilian to the Porte -- it is astonishing how many flowers that enterprising man is accredited with introducing to his own and other western countries. He is reported to have seen tulips in bloom on the road between Adrianople and Constantinople in mid-winter, and, struck with their beauty, brought some home with him. Then there is the story of a bulb being brought to England by a sailor and given by him to an apothecary's wife, as a token of his gratitude for her kindness to him in sickness. According to this story, the bulb first bloomed in 1557, but according to some authorities tulips were not seen here at all until 1577. The sailor story, when told in detail, offers several other difficulties. It rather presupposes that the man thought the bulb of value, which he might or might not have done. And it certainly demands that the recipient of it should have been a good gardener and woman of business, for she is narrated to have at once grown and multiplied her tulip and sold the offsets for a guinea apiece -- a large price in Elizabethan England for a new and as yet unfashionable flower, introduced merely by a country apothecary's wife. It also puts the date of the first flowering in England as 1559, the date when, it is said, Conrad Gesner, the Swiss botanist and name-father to the Gesneriana, brought the tulip from Constantinople to Augsburg. There is another story which ascribes the first introduction of the tulip into England to Sir Philip Sidney, who is reputed to have brought it from the Continent. Personally I prefer that account; it is in keeping with the character of the great Elizabethan, also it offers less difficulties. Sidney, we know, was on a diplomatic mission to the German court, where he made a friend of William of Orange; this in 1577, by which time tulips, whether first introduced by Gesner to Augsburg or by Busbecq to Maximilian, would have had time to grow and increase in Germany and the Low Countries, and might well have attracted the attention of the widely interested and cultivated Sidney.

But how they came and when they came does not greatly matter now. Come they did, both to Holland and to England, and early find their way to favour and to cultivation and variation. The date of the earliest varieties is as unknown as the date of introduction, but some are certainly very old, many late single kinds, Darwin tulips among them, have been found by Dutch growers in old Flemish gardens with long histories, other sorts seem to be quite as old. The tulip, like the dog, appears to have taken very kindly to domestication and variation for the pleasure of man.

There are, of course, wild tulips in some countries, the Sylvestris of Italy, for instance, though none are native to Holland. They are accredited to England, and said to be indigenous in Gloucestershire, but the thing is very doubtful, much more likely have they been introduced -- as rabbits to Australia -- and taken to the West Country. There is a garden in Devonshire where they multiply wonderfully, and where, to a certain extent, a record of their multiplication is kept. Incorporated in the lease of the house is a clause to the effect that the lessee, when he leaves, shall, besides the usual "habitable condition," etc., leave so many hundred of a special kind of red tulip in the garden. The which is rather a pleasing clause to read in these days, when no one may put a window in his woodshed without the permission of the Urban District Council. It is pleasing to realise that a man, though dead, has that much right over his own property, and can perpetuate his fancy for red tulips, or (as is the case of an east county estate) ordain that the garden he loved shall continue to be as it has been since the days of Anne Boleyn -- that, not only shall no Council say him nay, but no Englishman would ever wish it, on the contrary they all, privately, think it a very right and proper thing.

Perhaps it will be permitted to close these desultory remarks on tulips past and present, English and Dutch, with a few lines from two early Victorian poets. The early Victorians loved the tulip, and, as usual when they loved a flower, they enshrined it "in poesy," a rather doubtful compliment : --

And sure more lovely to behold
Might nothing meet the wistful eye,
Than crimson fading into gold
In streaks of fairest symmetry.

This sounds like the old original Duc van Tholl, which is almost ugly enough to deserve such a fate; at least in some people's opinion, although an old grower, once contemplating it in admiration, exclaimed, "It is a grand flower -- grand I But the English amateurs now have no taste. They no longer know what a tulip should be! This, this I tell you, this is a Tulip!"

One other quotation, this from Montgomery, admired of our grandmothers. He would seem to have been planting a tulip bulb, evidently one of the streaked florist's variety, and the thought of the flower to come moved him to utterance worthy of the "Elegant Album" : --


Two shapely leaves will first unfold;
Then, on a smooth, elastic stem,
The verdant bud shall turn to gold,
And open in a diadem.

Not one of Flora's brilliant race
A form more perfect can display;
Art could not feign more simple grace,
Nor Nature take a line away.

Yet, rich as morn, of many a hue,
When flushing clouds through darkness strike,
The Tulip's petals shine in dew,
All beautiful, but none alike.

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