Books: The wildly sexy rebel on the garage forecourt

The Tulip by Anna Pavord Bloomsbury pounds 30
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The Independent Culture
A nd what is this Toolip?" asked Thomas Fuller, testily, in 1655. He knew perfectly well. It is "a Flower (in courtesie I will term it so, though it deserve not the appellation), which hath engrafted the love and affection of most people unto it ... A well-complexion'd stink, an ill favour wrapt up in pleasant colours which filleth all Gardens, hundreds of pounds being given for the root thereof."

Fuller stood alone in his furious disdain. By then, the tulip was already the darling of every heart, the most expensive and desirable plant in the world. In Holland, during the crazy 1630s, a single bulb had changed hands for more than the price of a fine Amsterdam house - with a garden and coach-house thrown in. In France, where tulip corsages cost as much as the jewels they replaced, a rich man sold his thriving brewery for one. And it was to be the same here. Already, Cavaliers and Roundheads were forgetting their differences and swapping bulbs: soon, men such as James Justice, the first person to fruit a pineapple in Scotland, would go spectacularly bankrupt for the sake of the little flower.

Anna Pavord does not disguise her own passionate commitment. This is a real love-story, written by one who is seriously, gloriously besotted. She has tracked the tulip into the wildest reaches of Central Asia; she has walked with wolves through rocky deserts in search of every tiny lurking flower and she has carefully inspected its ancient roots. No stone has been left unturned, no library, gallery or museum umplundered. Her magnificent book is illustrated with tiles, marquetry and curtains, wrought-iron finials and wriggle-work plates - not to mention paintings, drawings engravings and photographs - all of them decorated with tulips. While their lanky leaves execute private dances - a pirouette, a Dying Swan, a wild fandango - the flowers themselves demand attention, whether militarily erect or languorously sprawling, neat and dainty or beguilingly sinuous, gaudy, striped, spotted, feathered or flamed.

Yet this is far more than an extremely handsome picturebook. From evocative introduction to detailed lists of species, it is written with a fine, lurid, scholarly and accessible flourish. From the first Persian and Turkish flowers, etiolated like needle-pointed daggers, Pavord traces the tulip's momentous journey from Istanbul to Antwerp - where a misguided merchant roasted a precious bulb and cheerfully ate it, dressed with oil and vinegar. Pausing only briefly, she picks up its trail again, as traders, travellers and refugees carried it to France, Holland, England and America, ultimately all over the temperate world.

Everywhere, people argued over its properties. Some liked it to have a waist, others preferred shoulders. James Justice was in favour of a cup shape, which could contain a pint of wine: the French preferred the petals to turn out, like a bell. When it passed out of high fashion into the dedicated care of competitive English artisan fanciers, efforts at standardisation became more absurd: one suggestion was that the flower should be "one half and the sixteenth part of a sphere". Relating this, Pavord can no longer contain herself: fancy "reducing the tulip, the sublime, reckless, irrepressible, wayward, unpredictable, strange, subtle, generous, elegant English Florists' tulip to a geometrical equation".

And those adjectives provide the clue to the tulip's unique desirability. It has a capricious nature; it tends to "break" from monochrome into an unexpected riot of brilliant colours. As Pavord says, it knows how to rebel. Quite suddenly, it "flings open its petals and reveals itself as the wildly sexy thing it is". This uncontrollable license flummoxed growers. They split and spliced bulbs; they varied compost; one (Justice again) even imported a shipload of soil from Holland where tulips seemed, then, as now, to do very well. The observant noticed that more colours were achieved when it was planted near orchards, but only in the 1920s was it established that the "break" was due to a virus carried by the peach potato aphid, which flourishes among fruit trees: it is the only known example of a disease which dramatically increases the value of the infected plant.

And so the frivolous tulip was scientifically steadied, mass-produced and dumped by the bucket-load in petrol-station forecourts - cheap, now, and cheerful. Yet here and there, says Pavord, that unpredictable exuberance is still cherished. A light burns on in Wakefield where the Tulip Society retains the traditions and flowers of two centuries; even the efficient Dutch are beginning to experiment with blowsy old varieties. Tulips are clearly ready for a flamboyant resurgence. This gorgeous book should do for them what Delia Smith did for cranberries. In the 13th century, a Persian poet wrote "O cupbearer, serve us the wine soon, before the tulips wither" - but the cup-bearer can relax. There's no sign of withering yet.