29 March 2018




With the passing of the first day of spring, Torontonians are starting to let down their guard and accept the idea that warmer days are truly ahead. Given the unreliability of consistent spring weather (not to mention predictions forecast by groundhogs), blooming flowers are one of the most trusted and welcome indicators of spring's arrival.

Though widespread throughout the world today, tulips are indigenous to Asia and the Middle East, and were first cultivated in Persia around the 10th century CE. The name may itself be derived from a Persian word for turban.

The association between tulips and the Dutch began with Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, a Flemish herbalist and diplomat to the Austrian court who sent tulip bulbs to his botanist friend in the Netherlands. This introduction of the flower happened to coincide with the Dutch Golden Age, when the Netherlands were enjoying a century of peace and economic prosperity. So began Tulip Mania seriously, Tulip Mania was a very real and very serious economic phenomenon, with bulbs being sold for prices equivalent to an average years wage, or even a house!

Dish, 1570-80, Iznik, Turkey from the Aga Khan Museum. Source.
Before Europeans were selling all of their worldly possessions for some very on-trend flowers, tulips were cherished in Turkey and held symbolic meaning as flowers of God. In this plate from the Aga Khan's permanent collection, tulips are intertwined with carnations and roses in a composition typical of Iznik pottery, which combined Ottoman and Chinese artistic approaches to ceramic design. Its floral pattern depicts tulips that more closely resemble wild varieties, in contrast to the round, cup-shaped tulips many of us are more familiar with.

Wild and Miniature Tulips
Sylvestris, a wild tulip species. Source.
Some decades later during the reign of Sultan Ahmed III of the Ottoman Empire, Tulips became a favourite flower of the Turkish elite, and were integrated into other arts and commercial goods besides ceramics, from textiles and clothing to painting and architecture.

The Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa. Source.
Canada received tulips by way of the Netherlands in 1945, when the Dutch royal family sent a gift of 100,000 bulbs to Ottawa as thanks for providing Queen Juliana refuge during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in WWII. Since 1953, the Canadian Tulip Festival has been celebrated in Canada's capital, which displays over one million tulips today.

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