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Adventures in tulip time

In May 1673 a French diplomat noted in his diary, after travelling from Edirne to Istanbul: “Had a wonderful time today. This was because of the fine weather and the large fields of tulips and peonies along the road to Burgaz.” Those bright blossoms in the fields were a harbinger of the famous Lâle Devri, the Tulip Era of the reign of Sultan Ahmed III (1703–30).

Antoine Galland’s diary entry is quoted (unfortunately without a reference) in the first of two books that appeared last year devoted to the history of tulips and tulip-fancying. Since Turkey and the Ottoman sultans’ enthusiasm for tulips feature quite prominently in both, Cornucopia readers may consider adding them to their collections of Turkey books.

The Tulip, by Anna Pavord, is a fat book with many fine colour plates. The author is a respected garden writer, with a column in a British weekly newspaper. Written with journalistic verve and almost febrile enthusiasm, her book attractively intertwines history, botany and horticulture. However, it is rather repetitive, and some will find 400 pages over-long, even for a flower as popular and widely grown as the tulip.

Tulipomania by Mike Dash is a pocket-sized hardback. He has a narrower focus than Pavord, who is interested in every aspect of the history of tulip growing. Dash concentrates on the Dutch and to a lesser extent the Turkish episodes of “tulipomania”.

Tulips are a beautiful bulbous plant. Their genetic make-up allows them to be bred in a huge range of colours and with strikingly patterned and shaped petals. Since the sixteenth century, Europeans have bred them intensively for their gardens and as cut flowers. It may be that in the tulip’s eastern homelands, enthusiasts were improving the wild species considerably earlier.

The two periods when it has become customary to speak of a mania for tulips were Holland in the 1640s and Istanbul under Ahmed III in the early eighteenth century. The craze for tulips under Ahmed III was nothing like as fevered as in Holland, and did not have the serious financial consequences. In Holland, as in France and England, tulips had been grown seriously since the sixteenth century, when the first bulbs were imported from the Ottoman empire, along with many other exciting plant species. Then, quite suddenly, thanks to the sophistication of the Dutch economy, the lure of large sums to be made from breeding showy tulips created a mad rush to speculate in tulips on the stock market. As Dash explains, vast sums were invested in the fanciest bulbs, which in three years led to a spectacular crash. The bursting of this first financial bubble dragged into bankruptcy not only tulip dealers and breeders but also many ordinary people.

In both cases, what particularly drove the tulip breeders and their clients wild was a curious fluke about this plant. Exquisite patterns can occur suddenly on a tulip’s petals, blotches, stripes and feathering, for all the world as if someone had taken a paintbrush to them. Thus one year, or for several years, a tulip has a yellow flower; suddenly, the next spring, it is yellow with red flashes. As Pavord tells us rather too often, the glory of the “broken” petals is caused by a virus carried by aphids, a discovery only made in the 1920s.

The strange tale of Dutch tulipomania is well known. As long ago as 1841 Charles Mackay brought tulips into his analysis of financial bubbles, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Last year The Financial Times reprinted sections and, sure enough, there was the story of tulip fever. As I write, it is fashionable for financial journalists to ask rhetorically whether internet stocks are not a modern-day repeat of tulip mania.

The Dutch assiduously market their three-centuries-old love affair with tulips – small wonder given that every spring the brilliantly striped fields beside the grey North Sea prove a handsome earner from tourism as well as bulb exports.

That Turkey, or rather Istanbul, experienced its own phase of intense, if not actually manic, enthusiasm for tulip breeding is less widely known. The Istanbul tulip which Ahmed III’s court so appreciated was a distinctive strain – small, with a slender, waisted cup and petals with elongated points, sharp as daggers. After the fashion waned (quite when is unknown), the Istanbul tulip became extinct. Nobody has managed to breed its like again.

Pavord’s book is a better introduction to the Turks and tulips than Dash’s. His chapter, oddly entitled “At the court of the tulip king”, is based on a narrower reading of secondary sources and revels tiresomely in what one might call “Sultan smut”. So we read that Mahmud, Ahmed III’s successor, “asked nothing better than to hide behind a grill [sic] in the harem and spy on the women of the palace”. The comical misspelling makes it look as though barbecues were a regular feature of life for the odalisques. And what has the observation that Ibrahim the Mad deflowered a virgin every Friday got to do with flower-fancying in the horticultural sense?

There is ample evidence in Turkish literature, going back to the poets of medieval Central Asia, that Turks keenly appreciated wild tulips for their brilliant colours and because they herald the coming of spring. Almost all the many species of tulip were originally native to Central Asia, the Middle East and Asia Minor – a vast region, much of which was under Ottoman sway. Today, no fewer than fourteen species of tulip grow in the wild in Turkey.

Pavord describes looking for tulips one May around Van and Tortum (though her description of “ricocheting” along snowy roads sounds unlikely). She writes ecstatically about the scarlet blooms she and her companions find on the barren mountain slopes, and fellow tulip enthusiasts will envy her. I have never seen a tulip in the wild, and would dearly like to, especially the hot orange Tulipa sprengeri, probably the flower I treasure most in my garden, which is said to grow around Amasya. Incidentally, it is a pity that Pavord spells so many Turkish place-names incorrectly; Hosap and Maras just will not do. Why is it that English publishers (and, for that matter, newspaper editors) think it acceptable to disdain Turkish accent marks, but not accents in French or German?

Like many people, my experience of tulips in Turkey is limited to their image in art, although it is delightfully evocative when one finds the flowerbeds beside the mosque of Sultan Ahmed planted up with tulips. However, many of us feel as if the Istanbul tulip still lives on. Its flaring dagger petals feature ubiquitously in Ottoman art from the sixteenth century to today’s revivalist ceramics, but most of all in the art of the Tulip Era. Carved stone, tiles, coloured glass, manuscripts, carpets and embroideries, all bear abundant witness to the charm and distinctive elegance of the Istanbul tulip.

Godfrey Goodwin, grandee of Turkish architectural history, called the Tulip Period of Ahmed III “the entr’acte between the dying classical and the coming baroque”. Perhaps the most familiar witness to the wonderfully decorative, strongly Frenchified taste of the time is the famous little dining room created for the Sultan in the selamlık of the Topkap› Saray. Once seen and never forgotten, this exquisite room is entirely covered with painted panels. Each one shows either a vase or a lattice-work basket filled with fruit or flowers, just as a gardener might have presented it to the sultan’s kitchens.

However, it should be noted that tulips are just one among many blooms in the baskets. To depict a court obsessively arguing over the merits of tulips is a distortion of a far more complex picture of the place that flower cultivation occupied in the taste of eighteenth-century Istanbul.

Anyone who lingers by the famous Sultan Ahmed fountain, rather than rushing straight on into the Topkap› Saray›, will see lovely panels carved in shallow relief with fruit trees in pots on presentation stands. Such elaborately carved and gaily painted fountains were one of the distinctive achievements of the period. Although the paint has long ago vanished, the fountains are a reminder of a typical feature of East and West at this time, the passion for outdoor enjoyment. The Turkish court held flower festivals in gardens along the Bosphorus which were beautified by little kiosks, pavilions and fountains – this at a time when European princes and nobles likewise revelled in expensive entertainments in their gardens.

Garden history is extremely popular in Britain nowadays, and increasingly in other European countries, too. In contrast, garden history enthusiasts are far less aware of the history of plants and gardening in Turkey. For this reason, it is rather a pity that the focus seems always to be on the so-called tulip mania. Those varied flowers in the Sultan’s diningroom tell another story, as does the French diplomat’s description of those fields of tulips and peonies. Turkish literature also testifies to the various flowering species which were held in deep affection: lilac, narcissus, hyacinth, rose and more. European gardens owe many lovely species to their having originally been imported from Turkey. It is perhaps time to leave the tulips alone, and to discover the wider background. We must hope for historians who know their archives and can bring alive Ottoman gardening in all its variety.

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