Tulip fever: A splash of color and life

From Holland to Norway to the United States


Photo: PxHere / public domain
The tulip, a flower we traditionally associate with Holland, is one of the most popular flowers in the world. They are grown in Norwegian greenhouses, and demand is high, especially during the Christmas
season, when it is popular to decorate with red tulips. After the rose, the tulip is the second most important flower in Norway.

Travel Editor
The Norwegian American

In the 16th century, European travelers returned from the East with the story of an unknown flower prized by the Turks. Referring to these wildflowers in French as lils rouges or red lilies, the bright blooms were actually tulips. Under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), the flower journeyed along the Silk Road from the Asian steppes to western Europe, where it became a cultivated sensation. Weaving its way through political upheavals, economic booms and busts, religious persecution and changing tastes, the tulip has become a worldwide phenomenon.

As Anna Pavord writes in The Tulip: The story of a Flower that has made Men Mad, in April 1559, the Zurich doctor and botanist Conrad Gesner saw the tulip flowering for the first time in the garden of Councilor Johann Heinrich Herwart in Augsburg, Bavaria. He described its gleaming red petals and its sensuous scent in a book published two years later, the first known report of the tulip growing in western Europe.

The tulip, wrote Gesner, had “sprung from a seed, which had come for Constantinople or as others say from Cappadocia.” For that flower and its wild cousins, gathered over the next 300 years from the steppes of Siberia, from Afghanistan, from Persia, the Crimea, and the Caucasus, came the cultivars that have been grown in gardens ever since. Today, more than 5,500 different tulips are listed in the International Register published since 1929 by Holland’s Royal General Bulb Growers’ Association (KAVB).

In the late 1500s, there was a great interest in plants in Vienna, throughout Germany, in the Low Countries and in England. Time and money were spent on gardens and filling them with the treasures that explorers and botanists brought back from their expeditions. Once introduced, the tulip spread rapidly. It had been first noted in Europe at Augsburg in 1559; in Antwerp, Belgium, by 1562; in other parts of Belgium by 1583; and Lucerne, Switzerland, by 1596. The flowers fitted admirably with the spirit of the age and the craze for curiosities to be displayed in horticultural Wunderkammer (display cabinets) with each rare flower exhibited like a jewel by wealthy owners who coveted tulips as status symbols.

By the beginning of the 17th century, the tulip was well-established in France. The country soon entered into a period of tulip madness even more extravagant than the tulip mania that later took over Holland. A thriving brewery, worth 30,000 francs, was paid to one grower as the price of a single bulb. In 1608, a miller exchanged his mill for a bulb. Flowers soon were used inside houses as well as in gardens. The tulip’s value gave it a special aura, surrounding it with mystique that growers liked because it increased the flower’s worth.

Though Holland and the tulip seem a natural pairing today, the Dutch cannot claim any of the firsts in the story of the tulip. But once introduced, tulips spread quickly through the Netherlands. The Dutch tulip mania of the mid 1630s was the culmination of a process. As early as 1614, writers were making fun of those who spent great sums of money on tulip bulbs, however, tulip prices continued to rise.

By 1623, the fabled flower “Semper Augustus” with petals that were colored like a candy cane was selling for 1,000 florins a bulb when the average annual income was about 150 florins. The highest price asked for “Semper Augustus” was noted in the 1838 Nederlandsch Magazijn in which the writer quoted a price of 13,000 florins for a single bulb, more than the cost of the most expensive canal house in the center of Amsterdam.


Photo: Schouten Gartneri A/S
A bouquet of tulips is a beautiful addition to any home at any time of the year.

By the winter of 1635, speculators took over the tulip trade. Tulip mania spread like wildfire. Who could have believed that in less than 100 years, this flower would bankrupt many wealthy Dutch people? Between 1634 and 1637, the element of chance, the possibility that from a plain bulb with seemingly no value, a flower might emerge flamed in contrasting colors.

The virus that caused this “breaking” of a tulip bulb was a mystery that only was solved in the 20th century. For the 17th-century Dutch, it was a seductive lottery that get-rich-quick merchants found irresistible even though many made and lost fortunes overnight. Meanwhile, the Dutch were getting a reputation for themselves as great nursery workers.

Tulips today

Today, if you visit Holland in the spring, there are tulips galore. Be sure to visit Keukenhof, where you will experience the gorgeous views of 7 million blooming Dutch tulips and other flowers for which Holland is famous. This year, Keukenhof was open through May 15. Gardens and four pavilions showcased a fantastic collection of tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, orchids, roses, carnations, irises, lilies, and many other flowers. Visitors were overwhelmed by a spectacle of colors and perfumes.

Each year, there is a different theme. Unique in the world, this park attracts more than 1 million visitors every year. In the summer, the garden of Keukenhof Castle is filled with 150 types of flowering dahlias. At the end of August, this is celebrated with the Keukenhof Dahlia Days, filled with all types of activities until mid-October.

In the United States, spring brings the appearance of tulips from garden centers to grocery stores. Whether you prefer them in a pot or on display in a vase, there is no lack of colorful tulips.

Tulips come to Norway

In Norway, Easter brings tulips; however, you must think of Christmas, too.

Tulips are one of the most important flowers during the Christmas holiday season, with production at Norwegian greenhouses in full swing. Sebastian Schouten of Schouten Gartneri produces tulips in a greenhouse in Lierstranda, Norway. Annually, they grow 20 million red tulips that are supplied all over the country for Christmas.

Throughout the year, roses are the most important flowers, followed by tulips. “For Christmas, one can get red tulips more easily than red roses. On top of that, because there are fewer red roses available, they are often more expensive compared to the rest of the year,” Schouten explains.


Photo: Schouten Gartneri A/S
Red tulips abound during the Christmas season at Shouten Gartneri in Lierstranda, Norway.

The history of the Schouten nursery is filled with life’s ups and downs. Father Matthé grew up on large tulip fields in the Netherlands. As the third eldest son in the family, he did not take over the farm but focused on gardening school. He further specialized his education in flowers and flower bulb production.

When he graduated, he traveled to Finland and then to Norway. The purpose of his time in Scandinavia was to understand the Nordic culture and to sell tulip bulbs from the family farm. But in Norway he met his wife, Rigmor, and settled down. They had two children, Christel and Sebastian. At first, Matthé worked at a garden center on Ramstadsletta, where he rose to production manager.

At the same time, he sold tulip bulbs in Norway, Australia, and Japan. During that period, Rigmor owned two flower shops, and the whole family was involved in all stages of flower production and flower sales. Christel trained to be a florist and worked in a flower shop for years.

Then, in 1995, the family decided to invest in their own tulip and flower production. They built a new greenhouse in Lier and planted, harvested, and packed 3 million tulips. But customers wanted more. That led to the sale of the flower shops to invest fully in tulip production with the entire family’s efforts. Production grew and they added lilies and various summer flowers as well. Today, they grow 20 million tulips for wholesale sales every year.

The brother and sister team of Sebastian and Christel runs the nursery. Christel works as sales manager and has a passion for developing packaging that that is both environmentally friendly and future oriented. She also makes sure that all customers receive fresh flowers of top quality at the right time.

Sebastian is the general manager. His tasks include everything that needs to be done. Father Matthé, the founder of the company, is responsible today for flower bulb purchases in Holland, since he enjoys more than 50 years of cooperation with the leading flower bulb producers. For this reason, the nursery secures tulip bulbs of very high quality.

About 75% of tulips sold in Norway are grown in Norway. The rest are imported from Holland. Since Holland is the prime country for tulips, why have the locally grown ones? The most obvious reason is the Norwegian import tax regulations on imported flowers, however, it is not the only reason. “The most important reason,” he says, “is that people value locally grown flowers.”

Learn more about tulips

Discover the Tulip Festival in Flevoland, Netherlands. Explore nearly 2,500 acres of flowering tulip fields in what National Geographic in 2009 described as “one of the world’s most beautiful road trips.”

Windmills, wooden shoes, and colorful fields filled with tulips. This is Holland on a living postcard. The Dutch spring is characterized by flowers and lower bulbs. Escape from the crowds at Keukenhof and discover the fun activities during the Tulip Festival each spring mid-April through May. You can follow the Tulip Route on foot, on a bicycle, or by car. The itinerary is online.

tulip field

Photo: LoweStock
Vibrant fields of colorful tulips carpet the Skagit Valley during the annual springtime festival.

Read Pavord’s book, published by Bloomsbury in 1999 and still going strong. It’s a fascinating in-depth read of greed, desire, and innovation that is well-illustrated and will tell you more than you will ever need to know about the history of the tulip.

Explore holland.com, the website that discusses flowers, especially tulips.

Tulips also abound in different parts of the United States. Think only of Holland, Mich. (holland.org), or western Washington state, where Dutch immigrants had, in part, settled and where the climates are ideal for growing them.

North of Seattle, the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival was officially inaugurated in 1984. The leaders of the local chamber of commerce in Mount Vernon, Wash., noticed that people were coming by the droves to see the tulips, and they eventually added events and festivities.

Ten years later, the Tulip Festival broke off from the chamber of commerce and became an entity of its own, as thousands of Washingtonians and other tourists make their way there each year.

Visit tulipfestival.org to learn more about this festival of color and life.

This article originally appeared in the May 27, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history. She collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.