April 04, 1996|By Page Huidekoper Wilson

"BE SURE TO put the root side down,'' I told Jinsong, the young Chinese student who was helping my husband and me plant tulips in our garden. ''When I was a child I thought that if we planted bulbs upside down the tulips would come up in China,'' I told him.

He smiled and said when he goes back to Beijing he will plant a lot of tulip bulbs upside down. ''And they will bloom in your garden.''

My husband laughed but I did not. For him this was a bit of happy nonsense, quickly forgotten. But for me it triggered a set of reminders of how the tulip has acquired its mystique among gardeners -- and others -- around the world.

Years ago when I was in Iran, a friend there said he would show me the spot where tulips were first discovered. He took me to Persepolis, the colossal palace of Darius near Shiraz, which even Alexander the Great could not entirely destroy. My friend and I walked up the long sloping steps, one of the two identical pairs that lead to the immense audience hall of the palace. From the hall we looked out through a few of the remaining columns to the bare, purple mountains beyond. My friend pointed to a field in the near distance and said that was where the first tulips grew. The tulips were black, he explained, and the stems were short to better withstand the wind that blew across the mountain passages.

He also told me that before Alexander's wrecking crew appeared, great swathes of gossamer Persian silk were draped between the 100 slender, fluted columns that once supported a ceiling 60 feet high. ''We were tent people, after all,'' he said. The hangings were in vivid yellows, blues, purples and oranges. I told him it must have seemed like a glorious scene in the theater, looking through a scrim of glowing silk to the black tulips beyond.

The flowers were greatly admired, he said, and were named for the Persian word for turban which they were thought to resemble. (The word is dulband; the Turks changed it to tulband and somehow it went on from there to the word we know.)

Jenghis Khan, it turned out, also greatly admired the tulips when he hit Persia in the Tartar sweep across Asia and Europe early in the 13th century. Indeed, he liked them so much that he helped himself to hundreds of tulip bulbs, which he distributed among selected warriors who were to wear them into battle. Wherever the soldier fell, a tulip would grow.

Fashion flowers

The tulip spread from Persia to other parts of the world. They were growing in the Ottoman Levant at the beginning of the 17th century when a European ambassador there took tulip bulbs home with him to give to his friends. He must have had a host of friends, because by the 1620s ''tulips were established as the unrivaled flowers of fashion throughout northern France, the Netherlands and eastern parts of Germany,'' Simon Schama writes in his brilliant book, ''The Embarrassment of Riches.''

By now Dutch botanists experimenting with hybrids had transformed the black tulip into an array of colors and shapes -- striped, spotted and even feathered. For a while only the rich could afford this seductive new flower, which they ordered from watercolor paintings bound together like a catalog.

Naturally, everyone coveted that symbol of elegance. Sleazy speculators appeared on the scene, poised to satisfy the appetite of the large new market, itching to make a quick killing by anticipating the price fluctuations of tulip bulbs. ''In an international entrepot like Amsterdam, where a glut of capital washed around looking for a new place to settle, and where rumor and gossip made and ruined fortunes, it was virtually impossible to stifle impromptu speculations,'' Mr. Schama writes. From 1634 to 1637 a speculative frenzy swept the country.

People paid monstrous prices for bulbs. Mr. Schama writes that someone, probably a farmer, offered for a single special bulb: a large measure of wheat and rye, four fat oxen, eight pigs, a dozen sheep, two oxheads of wine, huge amounts of butter and cheese, a bed and some clothing. And to clinch the deal, he threw in a silver beaker.

As the Calvinist preachers and the prudent financiers had warned, the bubble burst. The wildly inflated prices and the speculative peddling of tulips that weren't likely to exist put an end to the delirium. Prices plummeted, tulip futures became worthless and the government was compelled to step in and sober up the tulip spree.

Out of that folly eventually grew the respectable Dutch tulip trade, now a main source of tulips around the world.

It won't be many days before we will begin to see the first blush of tulips my husband and Jinsong and I planted last fall. I am prepared to wait a while to see the tulips in our garden that come from the bulbs Jinsong will plant in Beijing. Meanwhile, I plan to tuck a tulip bulb in the back pocket of my blue jeans. In case I fall somewhere in my rounds in Washington, a tulip, maybe a black tulip, will surely grow.

Page Huidekoper Wilson is a Washington writer.

Pub Date: 4/04/96

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