A hardy member of the genus Tulipa in the lily family. Most tulips in gardens and bouquets are varieties of Tulipa gesneriana; they have deep bell-shaped blossoms in gorgeous rich colours, long sword-shaped leaves, and bulbous roots.
Tulips are indigenous to the northern temperate regions of Europe and Asia, and grow most abundantly on the Central Asian steppes. Tulips were apparently first cultivated in Turkey, and Ottoman arts such as pottery and poetry incorporate lovely images of tulips. Tulipists developed upwards of 2000 varieties and gave them romantic names such as Meadow Beauty, Fountain of Life, Diamond's Envy, and Cloth of Love. The flower's heyday occurred during the reign of Ahmet III (1703-1730), also known as the Tulip period.
In 1554 Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, ambassador of the court of Ferdinand I in Vienna to Suleiman I the Magnificent in Constantinople, noted the abundance of beautiful flowers that he (erroneously) thought were called "tulipan". Actually, the Turks called the flower "lale"; the confusion apparently arose because de Busbecq misunderstood his interpreter, who was in fact telling him that people wore the flowers in their turbans ("tulipan") as decoration. In any case, the ambassador brought seeds and bulbs back to Vienna with him, and within five years tulips were flourishing in that city.
Botanist Carolus Clusius was given some of the bulbs and in 1592 brought them to Holland, introducing the flower to the country with which it has become inextricably associated. He began to grow tulips in his home garden and in the botanical gardens of Leiden, of which he was director. Taken by the blossom, over the next decades the flower became a favourite of the tulipomaniac Dutch. A "futures market" in tulips developed, and people began to pay exorbitant prices for bulbs expected to produce exotic variations in colour, size, and shape. Particularly popular were blossoms with colour flecking or striping known as "breaking", now known to be caused by a virus carried by aphids. However the variations came about, the prices paid were high: one bulb is recorded as being sold for "a load of grain, 4 oxen, 12 sheep, 5 pigs, 2 tubs of butter, 1,000 pounds of cheese, 4 barrels of beer, 2 hogsheads of wine, a suit of clothes and a silver drinking cup." Tulipomania raged between 1632 to 1637, after which the government intervened and the market subsequently collapsed. The Dutch regained their sanity, but the tulip remains the national flower of the Netherlands and an important export for the country. It was also a last-resort food source during World War II, when the starving Dutch were reduced to eating the bulbs.
Dutch settlers to the United States brought the tulip with them to the New world; the Pennsylvania Dutch potters featured tulips in their wares, often called "tulip ware", and Holland, Michigan holds a popular annual tulip festival, as does Ottawa, the capital of Canada. Canada sheltered the displaced Dutch royal family in that city in World War II, and Canada played an important role in liberating Holland from German occupancy. In appreciation, the royal family presented Ottawa with 100,000 tulip bulbs after the war, and sends thousands more each year. The millions of blooms are at their height of beauty in May.