The story of one pyramid: how tulips became the national treasure of the Netherlands
Under conditions of uncertainty, people are ready to invest money even in the air
January 8, 2023
The most beautiful financial pyramid —of tulips — once collapsed in the Netherlands. The common people went bankrupt, the economy survived, but the state made the right conclusions.
At the world's largest flower auction-exchange FloraHollandabout 20 million flowers are sold daily. Tulips in a season can be bought up to 1.8 billion pieces. The exchange has been selling flowers for 100 years now.
It is located in a strategically important place – next to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Trades are held five days a week, from 7 am to 10-11 am. Exchange FloraHollandsupplies 5,000 member companies. The goods are brought to the auction the night before or early in the morning, they are carefully examined and placed in cold stores.
Buyers are seated in the hall, where carts with plants pass in front of them along the conveyor belt. At this time, the electronic scoreboard shows the current price of the lot. Initially, the maximum, it decreases until the first buyer presses the button located in front of him.
Flowers sold at auction appear in stores in Europe and the United States in the evening or the next morning.
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Tulips are the most important export commodity of the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the national symbol of the country is far from being of Dutch origin. It is believed that the flower was brought to Europe from Constantinople in the 1550s by the Austrian ambassador to Turkey, Ogier de Busbeck.
A large batch of bulbs was sent to the Vienna Garden of Medicinal Plants, which was run by the Flemish botanist Charles de l'Ecluse, better known as Carl Clusius. He actively engaged in the selection of a flower, named after the oriental headdress “turban” (from the Turkish tulbend).
When Clusius was invited to work as curator of the botanical garden of Leiden University in Holland, he took with a few bulbs. Charles planted them in 1593, and in 1594 tulips bloomed for the first time in the Netherlands.
However, the cultivation of overseas flowers in Holland was not easy. In the first winter, more than 100 bulbs were eaten by mice, and it took years to breed new ones. The scientist did not sell the tulips grown with such difficulty, except that he shared the results of selection with fellow craftsmen working at the royal courts of Europe. It is not surprising that thieves visited the biologist's garden in 1596 and 1598. And after the death of Clusius (in 1609), exotic flowers began to appear on the market, becoming the “virus” of the disease that struck Holland for several years.
BREEDING Rembrandt and tulips
Rembrandt tulips (Rembrandt Group) – one of 15 classes into which all are divided current varieties. It combines variegated flowers with whimsical strokes and spots on the petals.
In the 17th century, such coloring arose in connection with the defeat of the bulbs by the variegation virus. Sick flowers were the most beautiful and expensive. It was them who were depicted in the paintings by the artists. Due to the fact that these tulips became a popular motif in Dutch painting, they were later combined into a class named after the most famous local artist – Rembrandt.
However, the virus that gave rise to an unusual varietal trait eventually led to degeneration “damaged” (broken) tulips, and the original varieties have not survived to this day. Modern Rembrandt tulips are bred without the virus – from varieties that show signs of this class. As a rule, they also fall into other classes at the same time.
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Today, tulip bulbs in the Netherlands are sold at every turn. According to Paula, a saleswoman in one of the many flower shops in Amsterdam, six out of ten of her customers buy tulips:
“They are inexpensive flowers. For three to five euros you can buy a bouquet of 10 pieces. The price for them practically does not change from season to season. Let's say that if we make money on roses only on special “romantic” occasions like Valentine's Day, then tulips are bought all the time and for no reason.
In the 17th century, this was unimaginable. Then the prices for tulips grew every day. Fashion for the novelty has spread among the best royal gardens in Europe. The tulip has become a symbol of status and wealth, aristocrats and those who aspired to their circles wanted to possess it.
In the 1630s, the Netherlands was in a state of economic prosperity and became the main trading and financial center of Northern Europe. Thanks to the success of the Dutch West India Company, which colonized a number of lands, including part of Portuguese Brazil, many amassed a decent amount of capital that needed to be invested in something. Fashionable and expensive tulips came in handy.
At first, exotic plants were traded in April – May, that is, during their flowering, but with an increase in demand, speculators appeared who began to sell bulbs, and then simply receipts for the right to purchase them in the future. That is, sellers sold tulips that they did not yet have or that did not exist at all in nature.
Ordinary people also rushed headlong into the tulip pool. It was something like a “feast” during the plague that raged in 1633-1637. In the face of a deadly disease, financial risks did not seem significant, and many were ready to invest everything they had in popular flowers.
The tulip craze has gone down in history as “tulipmania” (tulpenmanie). The peak of the flower fever came in December 1636 – by this moment the prices of tulips had risen 20 times compared to October of the same year. There is a legend that during that amazing period of the history of the Netherlands, an English sailor was put behind bars just because he ate an onion. The poor fellow stole a trophy from someone's garden, confusing it with an ordinary bow. In terms of cost, the “dish” turned out to be equivalent to the annual ration of the entire crew of the ship.
Rare flower became the most expensive flower red and white tulip Semper Augustus, its value reached 3,000 florins. In those days it was fabulous money! There were jokers who made lists of good things that could be bought with them: 8 well-fed piglets, 4 oxen, 12 fattened sheep, 24 tons of wheat, 48 tons of rye, 2 barrels of wine, 4 barrels of beer, 2 tons of butter, 500 kilograms of cheese, a bed with a mattress and linens, a suit, a silver mug, and a ship that could take it all away.
In January 1637, when the new entrants in the market could not afford even the cheapest onion, the bubble burst. On April 27, 1637, the government banned futures contracts.
As a result of a sharp drop in the market, thousands of ordinary people went bankrupt. However, the state did not intervene in disputes between sellers and buyers, since the tulip market developed in isolation from the country's economy. And she suffered very little.
LEGEND The Mystery of the Black Tulip
The black tulip does not exist in nature, despite numerous attempts to breed it. The flower became famous thanks to the novel “The Black Tulip” by Alexandre Dumas. It tells about the events of 1672, when the municipality of Haarlem announced a prize of 100,000 florins to the author of such a flower.
The writer was allegedly inspired by the legend of a shoemaker from The Hague, who declared that he had a black tulip – the dream of every gardener. Hearing of this, the Haarlem florist syndicate decided to get their hands on the rare flower. After a short bargaining, the shoemaker agreed to 1,500 florins and brought out a tulip to the buyers. The florists threw the flower on the floor and trampled it, exclaiming, “Idiot! We also have a black tulip, and you won't get a chance to grow it again.” And finally, they added that if the owner had asked, they could have paid him 10,000 florins. On the same evening, the shoemaker hanged himself.
With a certain amount of wisdom, a negative experience works better than a positive one. From the bitter lesson, the Dutch drew useful conclusions and did not abandon the flower. Tulips, which became more accessible, began to be cultivated on an industrial scale. By 1844, about 5,000 varieties had been bred.
Today in Holland, 22,500 hectares of land are allocated for growing tulips, on which about three billion flowers grow: two of them are exported, and one remains in the country. If all these tulips are planted at a distance of 10 centimeters from each other, they will circle the equator seven times.
Surprisingly, the climate of the Netherlands suited the flower born in Asia perfectly. The sandy soils off the coast of the North Sea were gradually adapted for flower cultivation, resulting in the famous Duin-en Bollenstreek (Dutch. “Region of dunes and bulbs”) – one of the most visited places in the Netherlands .
Aryan Smith owns 18 hectares of land, on which he grows up to 10 million tulips annually. He is the owner of Arjan Smit, a family business that supplies flowers to the FloraHolland auction, among others.
“To grow tulips, we use the latest technology,” says Smith. “Out of season, the bulbs are kept in a special freezer room. Two weeks before planting in greenhouses, they are placed in containers filled with rainwater, which we collect from the roofs of greenhouses. During the rooting period, the bulbs are especially in need of moisture, so we use a special system with filters, in which water is constantly circulated and purified, but at the same time retains organic sediment. This allows you to get especially high-quality tulips. In greenhouses, flowers ripen in three weeks.”
Special machines cut ripe tulips and pack those that have passed computer quality control into bouquets. Firm Arjan Smitsells not only bouquets, but also bulbs, in particular, bred personally by the owner.
“Every year we bring a new variety to the market. This year (2014 — Note by Vokrugsveta.ru) I introduced the tulip tiliro. Its name combines the names of my children – Tim, Lisa and Rose. A point of special pride – grade royal virgin. This is a perfect white tulip. It took fifteen years to create it,” says Aryan. “Why so long? It takes several years to cross different varieties and grow seedlings. After that, we select the best and test, test for many years in a row. The new variety must be different from the already existing ones – either in color, or in shape, or in durability. The more features, the higher the value.”
READING ROOM Alexandre Dumas, from The Black Tulip
“The Horticultural Society of Haarlem has risen to the occasion by donating 100,000 florins for a tulip bulb. The city did not want to be left behind and allocated the same amount to organize a celebration in honor of the award.
And so the Sunday appointed for this ceremony became a day of popular rejoicing. Unusual enthusiasm seized the townspeople. Even those who possessed the mocking character of the French, accustomed to making fun of everyone and everything, could not help but admire these glorious Dutch, ready to spend money with equal ease on building a ship to fight enemies, that is, to maintain national honor, and to reward for the discovery of a new a flower that was destined to shine for one day and entertain women, scientists and the curious during that day.
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Children of flowers
The tulip occupies a special place in the system of Dutch values. It is considered an honor for a Dutchman when a new variety is named after him for special services to the fatherland. Among the country's most revered citizens who have earned their “star” flower are soccer player Danny Blind, former Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and astronaut André Kuipers. And for ordinary people in the Netherlands, the tulip remains just a favorite flower, affordable and always desired.
“Tulips are as much a symbol of our country as cheese or marijuana,” says 60-year-old Greta Hopma. “What is more popular: tulips or grass? Perhaps the police know better. But everyone here loves tulips.”
Greta lives in the north of the country in the city of Groningen. In her free time from her grandchildren, she is not averse to tinkering in the garden, where she grows tulips among other flowers. And 40 years ago, this woman was a hippie to the core. Like her husband.
Such as they were called “children of flowers”: they decorated themselves with flowers, gave them to passers-by and inserted them into gun barrels. By protesting against social norms, local hippies have achieved great social change, thanks to which the Netherlands has gained a reputation as the most freedom-loving country in the world.
Hippies loved everything bright and catchy. Many Dutch people still prefer bright accents in clothes, in the interior, in the environment. Tulips adorn almost every windowsill in Amsterdam.
“They are so different, that's why everyone likes them,” says Greta. “I often hear that it is gray in our country and that tulips compensate us for the lack of bright colors. This is not true! It is more sunny than cloudy in the Netherlands. But tulips are spring flowers, they bring a feeling of joy. They are always sold in a bouquet, no need to rack your brains on how to compose it. Suitable for any age and occasion – graduation, wedding, funeral. Small, comfortable, without thorns, do not need special care. What else… They are simple, welcoming and friendly, just like us, the Dutch.”