Stories abound about Tulips

April signifies the month of blooming tulips, when one can witness tiers of brightly coloured flowers fluttering in the wind, with upright cup-shaped tulips in radiant hues presenting a kaleidoscopic view.

Despite popular association with Holland, Tulips have actually originated from Central Asia, growing wild in the valleys of Tuen Shan Mountains (bordering China, Afghanistan and Russia). These wild flowers may have been cultivated in Turkey during Ottoman period. A popular theory envisages Sultan Suleiman importing tulips from remote mountains of Kazakhstan for cultivation in his imperial gardens. The name itself is derived from a Turkish word ‘tulbend’, meaning turban, due to a close resemblance of its shape. The flower gained prominence much later in 16th century when it was introduced to Netherlands, which is currently the main producer with an annual output of around 3 billion bulbs and 150 species spanning across an array of colours and shapes.

Thus, Dutch Tulips are not native, and happen to be cultivated varieties. The credit for introducing tulips to Western Europe goes to Carolus Clusius. He received some flowers from his friend, the Austrian ambassador to Ottoman Empire and planted these in the Leiden University of Netherlands. Bulbs stolen from his private garden provided the base inventory for Dutch Tulip industry. Withering in tropical climates, tulips need a cold winter to bloom in spring. The plants could be cultivated from seeds or bulbs that grow on a mother bulb. While a bulb grown from a seed would take almost 7 years to flower, the bulb itself would give output in a year.  Tulip bulbs, being genetic clones, retain the colour and shape of their parent. New varieties evolve only from seed-grown plants, which bear a partial resemblance to the flower from which seeds are taken. This provides ample scope for experimenting and breeding new varieties and shades of the flower.  While people ventured with several colour variations, there was an inherent fascination for Black tulip. Alexandar Dumas used the concept of a bumper prize for the first grower of a black tulip in his romantic novel The Black tulip. Tulips also adopted a prime place amongst the Dutch painters, who painted the flower in different mediums, which have evolved as masterpieces of art.

In 17th Century Netherlands, Tulips became a luxury item and a status symbol. Admiration of the flower, coupled with its popularity and shortage of supply created a speculative market for tulips and their bulbs. This led to a frenzy where the excessive demand for tulip bulbs caused these to be sold for enormous prices. Traders were awed by broken tulips  ones whose petals were striped or multicoloured rather than having a single shade. The craving for broken bulbs and new varieties led to an economic interest for these traders. With slow increase in potential bulb stocks, collectors started paying as much as 10 years worth of a skilled workers salary for a tulip bulb. Semper Augustus, with stripes of scarlet and white, the most sought after variety commanded a price equivalent to a river-side villa in Amsterdam.  Investors started trading in contracts promising bulbs in future. Such contracts were sold and re-sold at further increased prices, leading to a heavily inflated market. Since the bulbs were sold by weight, an investor had to just plant a bulb and wait for it to increase in size. Bulbs bought for a couple of guilders would sell for hundreds in a few months, and would change ownership several times before even their first bloom. Subsequently, the fever subsided, forward contracts started getting dishonoured and the prices crashed. While some folks had made profits, many lost their savings, as this bubble burst. It needed a government intervention to declare the forward contracts null and void. This is the first recorded incidence of speculative commodity trading. The entire Dutch economy faced a crash and could not recover for years to come.

Stories abound about Tulips. The Turks had a strict law wherein trade of tulips outside the capital was punishable by exile, and a tulip bulb was valued more than a human life. In Netherlands, a sailor who mistook a rare tulip bulb for an onion and ate it with his sandwich was charged with felony and imprisoned.  There are narratives of chimney-sweeps striking overnight riches by trading in tulip bulbs during the Tulip-mania period.

This brings us to the Tulip festival being held in Srinagar this April. Nestled on the foots of Zabarwan hills over an area of 30 acres, the Tulip garden at Srinagar is our own parallel to Kaukenhof, the Worlds largest flower garden which houses a huge collection of Tulip varieties.

Tulips were possibly brought to Kashmir during Afghan rule and then occupied a key position amongst local flora during the subsequent eras.  Memories take me back to the days when Tulips were mostly found at Mughal gardens, school picnics to these gardens being a much awaited annual affair. It was at the beginning of this century when bulbs were imported from Netherlands to craft an indigenous garden on the lines of globally renowned European counterparts. The Tulip garden which was inaugurated in 2007 is the largest landscaping project of the state since Mughal period. Commendable efforts by teams of our horticulturists and gardeners has yielded an awesome result of 1.2 million Tulip bulbs with almost 60 different varieties, and the garden getting adjudged amongst top five Tulip destinations by World Tulip summit society. Over these years, the garden has evolved as an artistic masterpiece. Should there be a remake or sequel of Silsila, the producer doesn’t need to rush to Amsterdam, our own Tulip garden would be a much favoured choice.

For most of us, Tulip festival has become an annual ritual which we look forward to eagerly. It has gained extreme popularity across the nation, and every year we observe an increased footfall of visitors, both national as well as international. The tourists take back a message of nature, peace and amity rather and the fact that Kashmir is not only about conflict.