Saturday, April 2, 2011

Freak Week II: Semper Augustus and Tulipmania.

Happy April 2nd, everyone! What better way to celebrate the coming of Spring (in one part of the world) than with a flower?

Yes, those are tulips (genus Tulipa), one of the most popular ornamental flowers in the world. These are very special types of tulip called Semper Augustus that was grown back in 17th-century Holland. Do not try to look for one in a flower catalog. You may find similar-looking tulips, but Semper Augustus is an extinct strain of tulip.

What the hell happened?

Back in 1593, tulips were introduced to Europe via the Ottoman Empire. Since they were new and very hard to grow (a tulip bulb only forms once every 7-12 years), they were seen as status symbols. The Dutch became particularly fond of them.

They might STILL be crazy.

By 1637, the Dutch had gone completely nuts raising tulips. They not only had red, yellow, and white varieties, but began to breed tulips with odd "flames" and streaks on their petals. Several of these odd tulips, including the Semper Augustus and the Viceroy, were so rare and expensive that people would sell the farm to get just one bulb.

Watercolor drawing of a Viceroy. Not worth as much as the actual flower.

No, seriously. Here is what people paid for a Viceroy, which was not even the most expensive bulb in existence:

Two lasts of wheat 448ƒ
Four lasts of rye 558ƒ
Four fat oxen 480ƒ
Eight fat swine 240ƒ
Twelve fat sheep 120ƒ
Two hogsheads of wine 70ƒ
Four tuns of beer 32ƒ
Two tons of butter 192ƒ
1,000 lb. of cheese 120ƒ
A complete bed 100ƒ
A suit of clothes 80ƒ
A silver drinking cup 60ƒ
Total 2500ƒ

In modern money, that's around 1,250 USD. Semper Augustus ran for at least twice that. That's a few bills. It is also a lot more than the average Dutch worker made.  Hell, see the cows on that list? Cows are expensive animals. These were very pricey tulips.

Rare color patterns like those found on the Semper Augustus and Viceroy were caused by the tulip breaking virus. It is spread by aphids and also called "tulip mosaic virus," "Lily streak virus," or simply "TMV." This virus causes abnormal white streaks in the tulip's petals. Modern strains of tulip with streaks are just bred that way; no tulips were harmed to make the bulbs available in magazines.

Utilizing this virus to give tulips unique patterns came with a downside: The virus severely stunts the growth of the plant. Successive breeding accelerated this effect so much that the bulb did not develop into a flower, thus ending the genetic line.


People lost millions breeding impermanent tulips. There were investment pamphlets advising against tulips, frequently citing religious material. Much like homosexuals and abortions today, tulips were considered against Christian morals.  We hope they were not likening it to genitalia, but given how the Christian mind works, it would not have been out of bounds.

Suggestive, much?

Since then, "tulip mania" has been used to describe any economic bubble. The dot-com bubble, expensive ball pythons, and the subprime mortgage crisis have all been compared to the tulip craze in Holland. Although reports of exactly how many people got into tulips are likely exaggerated, some people were certainly mad about flowers.

Tomorrow: Incense and peppermints...and White Widow.

No comments:

Post a Comment