The value of tulips

November 10, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- During the mania of tulip speculation that swept Holland in the 1630s, the rights to a bulb named Viceroy were sold for goods including six loads of grain, four oxen, eight hogs, 12 sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four barrels of beer, half a ton of cheese and a silver tankard.

It must have been a pretty flower, and I wonder about it a little now as I dig in the damp November ground near the house, getting ready to plant a couple of dozen tulip bulbs of my own. Tulip prices have fallen somewhat over the last 360 years, fortunately. My bulbs, imported from the Netherlands, were bought for me by my stepmother in downtown Churchville for around 50 cents apiece.

In my mind, planting bulbs ought to be a fixture on the late-fall to-do list, along with stacking firewood, checking the antifreeze and getting the cows examined for pregnancy. But it isn't. It's a job I don't always get done.

Too many years, the weather window slowly closes while I'm busy elsewhere, and then either I can't find any more bulbs in the stores, or the ground has frozen hard. Then I have to face another spring in which the absence of tulips in places where I had hoped they'd be blooming sharply reminds me of my own negligence the autumn before.

I don't pretend to be much of a gardener. My weedy vegetable patch out back certainly won't win any awards, and most of the flowers around the house are annuals I buy in the spring and just shove into the ground. But I grew up in a house with flowers around it, and if there weren't any to be found around mine, I know I'd feel as though I were falling down on the job.

For someone with modest horticultural abilities, bulbs are ideal. Each year when I do make the modest investment in time and effort to plant them in November, it's returned with interest in April and May. And the bulbs don't even demand annual attention; the crocuses and daffodils I planted years ago keep coming up anyway, and I expect will do so long after I'm dead.

Tulips, though, are usually at their best the first year after planting or replanting, and then they can be truly spectacular -- making it easy to understand how tulipmania intoxicated whole societies, and how it brought riches to a few and disaster to many exactly as other fashionably intoxicating products have.

Squirrel larders

That's history, though. Back in the here and now, the November soil has a special moist autumnal smell. Every shovelful of dirt I turn over is filled with nightcrawlers. I also find walnuts the squirrels have buried, and hope they won't come back for them. I add a little bonemeal at the bottom of each hole, put in the bulb, and pack earth and worms, but not walnuts, back on top of it. In a few months the early Emperors, mid-spring Apeldoorns and late-spring Avignons should be blooming there. No Viceroys, though.

It occurs to me that the first tulips I bought for this house came, fittingly, from an unscrupulous Dutchman. He disappeared from the area owing a lot of people, including me, money. But the tulips he sold me brightened quite a few springs.

Tulips were brought to Europe from Turkey in 1554 by a Flemish diplomat. They were established first in Vienna, later in Leiden. Soon the Dutch were cultivating them countrywide, always seeking what botanists call a ''break'' -- a flower unlike, and often far more beautiful than, those that produced it.

The real boom, in which tulip futures as well as actual bulbs brought insane prices during a frenzy of trading, lasted only three years, from 1634 to 1637. The outcome was so dismal that after the crash a dotty botany professor at Leiden used to walk around the Dutch countryside in the spring, seeking justice by beheading tulips with his walking stick.

Oddly, when European-developed tulip species eventually made their way back to Turkey in 1718, they touched off a craze much like the one that had devastated Dutch investors 80 years before.

While I appreciate tulips, I'm not intoxicated by them, either aesthetically or as an investment. I'm sure I could get along fine entirely without them, relying on daffodils and wildflowers to color the yard in the spring.

I suppose what I like as much as the sight of tulips in bloom is the whole process, which includes digging in the aromatic November ground half a year before they appear. In the spring the pace of life often seems so fast there's hardly time to look at a tulip, but the fall is more deliberate, and lends itself to anticipation.

I rake some leaves over the disturbed ground and put away the spade. In the case of tulip cultivation, as in other things in life, the beginning of the process can be more rewarding than its culmination.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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