Thursday, June 16, 2011


In the 1630’s Holland’s economy – at that time one of the largest economies in the world – was very nearly dashed on the rocks of a speculative frenzy that created paper fortunes overnight and just as quickly ruined untold lives. 

In modern economic terms their economy was riding a bubble, a bubble which burst with astounding speed and ruthless force.  What was the cause of the bubble?  What could drive the usually stoic, stolid and staid (and all those other st~ words which basically mean “northern European” and “boring”) Dutch mad with greed?  What could have caused these devout Calvinists to forget that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?  (Scratch that last one – it’s actually much harder to find anyone who remembers that one).

The answer is tulip bulbs.

At the height of the craziness a single tulip bulb – Semper augustus ­ sold for 10,000 guilders, the going price at the time for the finest canal houses.

Michael Pollan covers “Tulipomania” (as this episode has become known) in The Botany of Desire, and it is chronicled in more detail elsewhere.  There is considerable debate about how big the speculative bubble was, and how great a threat it posed to the Dutch economy at that time.  I tend to side with those who believe it posed a dire threat.  Makes a better story that way.

We know now that it was all caused by a virus.  Tulip petals have two sets of pigments, a base color (usually white or yellow) and then a brighter color.  Sometimes a virus attacks the brighter color, revealing streaks of the lighter color pigment beneath.  These “color breaks” created color-swirled flowers of breathtaking beauty, and could be reproduced clonally from offshoots of the bulb.  Dutch gardeners would spread colored pigment on their soil in hope of inducing color breaks, and employed many of the tools and methods of alchemists in hopes of creating the tulip that would make their fortune – with the same success rate alchemists enjoyed.

Of course when it was later discovered that color breaks are caused by a virus, a) they lost their allure and mystery, and b) tulip breeders immediately set about stomping out the virus.  Today tulips with true color breaks are rare but – thankfully – they can still be found.  Most of the tulips that drove the frenzy of the 1630s are lost to us, viewable only in paintings of the time.

Pollan’s point in discussing the tulip in The Botany of Desire is to explore how plants “use” human perceptions of beauty to get humans to expand their domain.

My point in discussing the tulip here is to explore human values, and play a game of “what if.”

For what was really at work here?  The preferment of a flower capable of expressing the tastes and fashions of the day.  Beauty as defined and executed by humans.  Beauty strictly for the sake of beauty.

I love flowers as much as the next guy.  But, especially in the case of tulips, at the end of the day we are talking about a flower – not flower as an enticement to pollination and therefore reproduction, but flower strictly as a decoration.

Perhaps that’s the exact moment when you know a particular economy or culture has too much money.

But for me it keeps coming back to this:  If we took the time and effort that has gone into breeding tulips that engender and reflect ever-changing human ideas of beauty and devoted one-tenth of those resources to breeding oaks. we’d have no soil erosion, we’d use a tiny fraction of the fossil fuels we burn today, and we’d have no hunger.  We’d be happier, healthier, and more peaceful.

I realize none that counts for much as compared to the perfect spring flower border, but it’s a start.

Some day.  Some day there will be another speculative frenzy.  Some dude in Mississippi will pay the equivalent of a Manhattan condo for a single hybrid oak acorn from a parent tree that produces acorns early, often and with buttery sweetness, with an easy-cracking shell.

And he’ll have made a great deal.  That will be the day we get our priorities straight.

By the way, I much prefer wild tulips to any of the cultivars that drove Holland mad.

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