If you live in or near a community that honors its Dutch heritage with an annual festival, you know that Tulip Time is here.
Early May is the time to celebrate all things Dutch: wooden shoes, parades, dancers in costume, street sweeping, Dutch pastries and sausages, and thousands upon thousands of tulips.
Tulips aren’t native to the Netherlands, and yet these flowers became an integral part of Dutch culture. Tulip bulbs became so valuable in the 1600s that they sold for more than a hundred times their weight in gold.
We may never know who began to cultivate the first wild tulips found in Asia, but by 1050 these flowers were already honored in Muslim Persia.
…of all the blooms in a Muslim garden, the tulip was regarded as the holiest, and the Turkish passion for this flower went far beyond mere appreciation of its beauty.
from Tulipomania by Mike Dash
By the 1500s the Turks began to cultivate tulips and breed new varieties with such expressive names as “Light of Paradise” and the “Matchless Pearl.” Rare and valuable tulips like these were grown in the interior gardens of the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul.
Later the Turks probably carried tulips west to eastern Europe via the Ottoman empire. Europeans who visited Istanbul were attracted to the flower’s bright colors and diversity.
Tulips began to spread to western Europe as nouveau riche merchants and Renaissance-inspired horticulturists both looked at gardening, and particularly the cultivation of the tulip, as a pursuit worthy of their time and money.
A Flemish merchant was unintentionally one of the first to introduce the tulip to northern Europe in 1562. Among the bales of cloth shipped back from the East, he found a package of tulip bulbs. Ignorant of their identity and oblivious to their value, he roasted them and ate them for supper.
The rest he planted in his garden next to the cabbages. When the tulips bloomed in the spring, the vibrant red and yellow flowers eventually came to the attention of a famous botanist (Clusius), who recognized their importance, and grew, studied, and gave bulbs to fellow horticulturalists. By 1593 this botanist, who had popularized the tulip, came to teach at Leiden University in the Dutch Republic and brought his valuable and vast tulip collection with him.
Tulips were embraced by the Dutch. They had found a home in Europe.
By the early seventeenth century
the tulip was an established favorite with many of the Dutch elite and the private passion of some of the most influential men in the republic.
from Tulipomania by Mike Dash
Tulips had become a status symbol.
The most desired tulips were quite rare and therefore very expensive. The magnificent variety called Semper Augustus was so coveted that records showed an offer of 12,000 guilders wasn’t enough to purchase ten bulbs. This was the beginning of what historians and economists call “tulip mania.”
Many Dutch saw that huge profits could be made in the tulip trade and so became tulip farmers. Tradesmen, desperate to better their standard of living, sold what they had to purchase bulbs. Weavers, for example, sold their looms.
As the demand for tulips increased, so did the price. The highest amount paid for a single tulip bulb was in 1637–an astounding 5200 guilders. At that time a carpenter could earn 250 guilders a year, and a middle class merchant might make 1500.
The Dutch even began to trade promissory notes for tulips in the ground, before they had bloomed–a futures market. Then the speculative bubble popped in the spring of 1637, and as quickly as fortunes had been made, they were lost. Growers were unable to sell even their most valuable and treasured bulbs.
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In a postapocalyptic movie I recently watched, the main character was asked what the world was like before the cataclysm. He replied that people didn’t know what was precious and what wasn’t.
What is precious to us?
What do we treasure?
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Matthew 6:21 NIV
Is it money and power? Is it prestige and status? Is it clothes and houses?
The human heart is so deceitful, that at times I’m not sure what I really do value. I have to ask myself, What do you spend your money and time on? Are you willing to sacrifice to obtain what you say is important?
The deeply flawed protagonist in the dystopian movie had a treasure–a Bible, perhaps the only remaining one. Do I treasure God’s word? Do I study and memorize the Bible as if it were truly precious to me?
The law from your mouth is more precious to me
than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.
Psalm 119:72 NIV
Is God Himself truly precious to me? What am I willing to give up to gain the kingdom of God? Do I seek things of lasting and intrinsic value?
Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.
Matthew 6:19-21 MSG
My prayer for us all
that we may ask ourselves and honestly answer
Where is your treasure? Where is your heart?
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
Matthew 13:44-46 NIV
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Photo by Martine Burrell
Photos by Barb Briggs
Semper Augustus was the most desired, most lauded, most rare, and, therefore, most valuable Dutch tulip of the 1600s. Of course, there are no photos from the time of “tulipomania.” Only written descriptions and paintings survive. The bulbs were so scarce, that few ever saw one. A man who owned a few of these tulips rejected offers of 2000-3000 guilders per bulb–a fortune! In comparison, the famous Dutch artist, Rembrandt, only earned 1500 guilders for his most famous painting, and a well-off Dutch merchant of that era might earn 3000 guilders in a year.
Semper Augustus was one of a group of fancifully colored tulips, exhibiting streaks, feathers, or veins of contrasting colors such as white or yellow. Common, solid-hued tulips that bloomed white, red, violet, or yellow one year might blossom the next in delightful new patterns.
These tulips were said to be “broken,” (the original solid color was broken up), and the process of change from a solid color to fantastic streaking was called “breaking.” Of two bulbs of the same color planted together in the same garden bed, one might bloom true, and the other would produce colors that were “broken.”
Tulip growers were mystified. They tried grafting, amending the soil, soaking bulbs in wine, all without success. They did notice that the broken tulips (which had smaller bulbs than standard ones) became weaker each year, until they eventually couldn’t produce a blossom.
Why? They were infected with a virus. Disease-carrying aphids fed on the tulips and transmitted the virus with each “bite.”
The famous broken varieties like the Semper Augustus are gone now, and the only tulips available with similar feathery streaks today are the result of cross-breeding. I find it ironic that the most celebrated tulip’s Latin name means “always” (semper) “majestic” (augustus).
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The white dinner plate slipped out of my soapy hands and crashed to the kitchen floor, breaking into hundreds of tiny shards. There was no repairing, no gluing it back together. I swept the pieces into a dustpan, emptied the fragments into a box, and set the box out by the garbage.
Beyond repair. Useless. Garbage. That’s how we feel sometimes, broken by the weight of our own bad choices, cracked by the pressure of sin that has followed us all since the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve took their disobedient bites, they spread the disease of sin and death into the world. It wasn’t God’s original plan, but it wasn’t the end either.
God doesn’t discard us when we are broken. He is moved to compassion. He reaches out to us in tender, loving kindness with a new plan.
Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice. Psalm 51:17 MSG
There is hope for us. We are living creatures, and God can make us into grow into something beautiful. He can take the worst of circumstances and use them.
Remember Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, carried away to Egypt, and yet became second only to the Pharaoh? The Lord was able to take the hatred, violence, and estrangement in Joseph’s family and transform it into a miracle of God’s providence. Joseph recognized the Lord’s hand in the brokenness of his life:
Don’t you see, you [brothers] planned evil against me but God used those same plans for my good, as you see all around you right now—life for many people.
Genesis 50:20 MSG
He can heal our brokenness of spirit. We can bloom beautifully, like the broken Dutch tulips. We are like the Semper Augustus–desired, unique, treasured, even if the virus of sin lives in us. We are so valuable that God sent his only Son to buy us, to save us.
The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Psalm 34:18 NIV
Refrain: You are strong
In the broken places
I’m carried in Your arms
You are strong
In the broken places
There’s healing in these scars
Broken Places, from Exhale by Plumb
Thanks to Barb Briggs and Martine Burrell for sharing photos.