Grow a $750,000 Tulip
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
The first major financial bubble is known as “Tulipmania.” It took place in the Netherlands in the 1630s when these beautiful garden flowers were still relatively rare and highly prized by the wealthy. Contract prices for bulbs of some of the more exotic looking tulips reached extraordinary levels -- $50,000 to $750,000 for a single bulb in today’s money – more than most craftspeople back then would ever earn in a lifetime.
What distinguished these colorful beauties was the weird color streaking of their petals. The most expensive tulips sold during the buying craze were the “Semper Augustus” tulips that bore creamy white flowers streaked with blood red and the “Viceroy” tulip which had cream and blackish-purple streaked flowers. These were known in the trade as “broken” tulips as the solid colors of the flowers had been fragmented by a benign virus.
During the height of the tulip craze, everybody got into the act and grew suddenly rich. “Nobles, citizens, farmers, mechanics, seamen, footmen, maid-servants, even chimney-sweeps and old clothes-women, dabbled in tulips. People of all grades converted their property into cash, and invested it in flowers,” according to Scottish journalist Charles Mackay, author of “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (1841).
It all came crashing down in 1637 when the bubble burst and many people were bankrupted.
These days, no direct descendants of the original “Viceroy” or “Semper Augustus” tulips survive. You can buy beautiful modern hybrids known as Rembrandt variegated tulips that are brilliantly color-streaked and feathered. They are readily available through spring bulb catalogs and at garden shops.
However, bulbs for true “broken” tulips whose unusual colors and designs are still caused by the original tulip virus that turned the financial world upside down are available today from specialty growers such as Old House Gardens in Michigan.
You’ll pay around $14 for one of these unusual bulbs. Pricey sure, but a steal at Tulipmania prices!
Photos (from top): “Black and White” tulip No. 978 from OldHouseGardens.com; Still Life with Flowers (1639), by Hans Bollongier (1623–1672), showcases the prized Semper Augustus tulip. Wikimedia Commons; Semper Augustus tulip, artist unknown; before 1640. Wikimedia Commons.