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Colourful and highly-prized

A trip in the mountains of Kazakhstan aroused the interest of the ecologist and photographer Dr Andreas Mieth in tulips. He presents the homeland and history of the popular spring flowers in lectures for the Schleswig-Holsteinische Universitäts-Gesellschaft (Schleswig-Holstein University Society, SHUG).

Field with hundreds of thousends of tulips
© Dr. Andreas Mieth

By now, the Netherlands produces two billion tulip bulbs per year, around two-thirds of the world's production.

Bright red, yellow or orange, fringed petals or double flowers - a bouquet of colourful tulips brings spring into the home. And it does so at a low price. It is hard to believe that around 400 years ago, during the Dutch Golden Age, tulip bulbs were an object of speculation, as Dr Andreas Mieth from the CAU’s Institute for Ecosystem Research (ÖSF) reported. "Tulip bulbs were traded in pubs, taverns and drinking holes in Amsterdam and Haarlem. The abundance of alcohol flowing may have contributed to the prices for tulip bulbs, and also the nature of the transactions, gradually beginning to spiral out of control." The high point of the speculation was reached in 1637. A single bulb of the rare species "Semper Augustus" then cost ten thousand guilders, as much as a townhouse on an upmarket canal in Amsterdam. “A big family could be fed, housed and clothed for half their lives from such an amount," said the Kiel scientist. Then in February 1637, the legendary Dutch tulip bubble burst. Within a few weeks, the prices for tulip bulbs were at rock bottom. Panic sales at low prices became prevalent. The value of the tulip bulbs on paper fell faster and faster. Mieth said "Tens of thousands became bankrupt, representing a large proportion of the citizens in the richest cities of the Netherlands. The tulip mania, which led to the first economic crisis in Europe caused by speculation, became a valuable lesson in economics - until today."

But tulips were valuable even before this time. In Persia and the Ottoman Empire, tulips were highly-prized flowers in the royal courts, long before they became known in Europe. Tulips were already admired in Persia around 1000 AD. According to Mieth, there only rulers were allowed to cultivate and breed tulips in their palace gardens. "The popularity of tulips reached a high point during the reign of the Ottomans, from the middle of the 16th century. The previously-forbidden pictorial representation of tulips was then allowed, and they became a popular motif on valuable ceramics as well as murals in the sultan’s palaces in Constantinople. The gardens of the palaces were designed in such a way that in addition to the gardeners, only the sultan himself could admire the valuable tulips from his chambers," said Mieth.

The core habitat of wild tulips is in the countries of Central Asia and the Near East, as well as Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. Most of the species of wild tulips bloom in Kazakhstan. Mieth travelled there in a small group to follow the trail of wild tulips. "This trip has given me a completely new perspective on tulips," said the biologist. He was impressed by how the lush red or yellow flowers can flourish in the midst of a dry steppe or in arid semi-desert soil. “This floral display shortly after the snow melts in early spring is really very impressive. Today, I can’t go past any tulip flowers without being reminded of their homeland in Central Asia."

tulips in Kazakhstan
© Dr. Andreas Mieth

The Zinaida tulip (Tulipa zenaidae) is one of the world’s rarest wild tulips. It only grows in a single valley in the Ile Alatau mountain range in Kyrgyzstan, which forms part of the Northern Tian Shan mountain system in the border region between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The tulip came to Central and Western Europe from Turkey in the middle of the 16th century. The first tulips were probably cultivated from wild varieties under the Ottoman ruler Suleiman I. "And it is very likely that cultivated tulips accompanied the Turks when they invaded Europe in the 16th century under Suleiman and reached the gates of Vienna," believes Mieth. In Europe, this flower from the Turks became known as the Tulipan (Turkish tülband = turban) - an allusion both to the conqueror who brought them with him, as well as to the turban-like shape of the tulip flower or the tulip bulb.

That the tulip became a symbol of the Netherlands is due to the botanist Carolus Clusius. At the time, Clusius travelled throughout Europe in search of rare plants, including tulip seeds and bulbs. In 1592, he was appointed head of the medical-botanical gardens at Leiden University. "Finally, Clusius had the opportunity to conduct large-scale cultivation, research and systematisation of tulips, with the security of paid employment. This was the starting point of tulip cultivation in Holland," explained Mieth, who has also travelled to the Dutch tulip-growing regions to experience the other side of the story.

"To see how entire fields of cultivated tulips transform the countryside into a colourful carpet of millions of flowers in the spring was also very impressive." However, the tulips which bloom in open fields are exclusively for the cultivation of bulbs, explained Mieth. At the height of the blooming, the tulip flowers are mowed off, so that the tulip plants put their entire growth efforts into the bulbs, instead of the seeds. The tulip bulbs, nourished by the leaves, can develop undisturbed until midsummer. Then they are harvested from the earth, cleaned and the small offset bulbs are removed. The large bulbs are sold, and the young offset bulbs are planted again in September.

The fact that the Netherlands today produces the vast majority of the world's tulip bulbs, is also because the Dutch west coast offers optimal growing conditions. "The soils have similar properties to the semi-deserts of Kazakhstan. They are rich in clay and nutrients, and can dry out in the summer." In the biologist’s experience, tulips thrive best at home where the soil is hygroscopic. Mieth said "In loamy, waterlogged soil, you won’t enjoy tulip bulbs for very long." And he has another bit of advice: "Wild tulip varieties, such as Tulipa kaufmanniana, are much more hardy than cultivated tulips. They grow back beautifully every year, for many years. However, they may only be acquired from propagated stocks, and certainly not from natural stocks," emphasised Mieth.

Author: Kerstin Nees

Dr Andreas Mieth: Flower of kings, merchants and emperors - a journey through the homeland and history of tulips. Lecture presented by the Schleswig-Holsteinische Universitäts-Gesellschaft (Schleswig-Holstein University Society, SHUG). 22 September at 8pm, Glinder Mühle. The SHUG lecture on 14 May in Hadersleben has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.