Sex on a stalk

It earned its place in history by sending an entire country mad. And the tulip remains `the most seductive, the most capricious, the most various, subtle, powerful and intriguing flower that has ever grown on earth'
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Tulipomania is supposed to have died with the great crash in Amsterdam in 1637, when the state finally intervened to bring to an end three years of frenzied trading in the flower. That, anyway, is what historians tell us. But they are wrong. Tulip madness is still irresistibly with us. I know, because I'm a demented slave to the flower myself, and I'm not alone. In Australia, Japan and the US, in Chile, South Africa and New Zealand, in France, Italy and the Netherlands, tulip growers are falling over themselves to keep up with demand for this extraordinary flower, the sexiest, the most capricious, the most various, subtle, powerful and intriguing flower that has ever grown on earth.

It has had an adventurous life, full of more real dramas than any Hollywood screenwriter would ever dare to invent. Holland was the setting for one of its strangest escapades; the craze for tulips that raged there between 1634 and 1637 has puzzled historians ever since. How was it possible that at the height of the fever, one bulb of the tulip `Admiral van Enkhuijsen' could sell for the equivalent of 15 years' wages for the average Amsterdam bricklayer?

It was partly a matter of timing. The Dutch East India Company had been set up in 1602 and this, combined with Amsterdam's increasing importance as a port, marked the beginning of an era of great prosperity for the Dutch. Merchants got rich and, in their wake, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists and jewellers too. The tulip, only recently introduced from the East, became the ultimate status symbol, the definitive emblem of how much you were worth. In the 1980s, the city trader's Porsche performed the same function, though in a cruder way.

And the flower itself had a unique trick that added dangerously to its other attractions. It could change colour, seemingly at will. A plain red tulip might emerge the following spring in a completely different guise, the petals feathered and flamed in intricate patterns of white and deep red. Though tulip lovers of the time did not know it, these "breaks" were caused by a virus, spread by aphids, but the research providing the answer to a mystery that intrigued and ensnared tulip growers for centuries was carried out only in the late 1920s.

The very concept of a "virus" was not understood in the modern sense until the 1880s. And only the advent of the electron microscope in the late 1920s gave researchers the necessary means to unravel its true nature. Early growers had a thousand theories on the best way to bring about the magic break. Some, taking their cue from contemporary alchemists, laid powdered paint on their tulip beds, expecting the colours miraculously to affect the flowers. It was no stranger than the alchemists' own attempts to turn base metal into gold. In fact it was rather better, for while the alchemists consistently failed in their endeavours, the tulip growers occasionally succeeded. They just did not know why.

Connoisseurs throughout Europe (and in the Ottoman Empire) had always rated "broken" flowers more highly than plain-coloured ones. For that reason, the broken flowers were the ones that commanded outrageous prices. But the virus was the joker in the tulip bed. Because its cause was not known, its effects could not be controlled. Virus-weakened tulips did not produce offsets as freely and vigorously as virus-free bulbs. Fine broken varieties such as `Semper Augustus' were slow to increase and that, too, increased their value.

Those who could not afford the tulips themselves commissioned artists such as Ambrosius Bosschaert and Balthasar van der Ast to paint them. Even the grand master of Dutch flower painting, Jan van Huysum, could rarely command more than 5,000 guilders for a painting. But a single bulb of the tulip `Admiral Lieffkens' changed hands for 4,400 guilders at a bulb auction in Alkmaar on 5 February 1637. So the priceless flower paintings we now ogle in the National Gallery are there only because some poor sap in Amsterdam could not afford the real thing.

Across the North Sea, England was not immune. Under the Stuarts, for instance, this country witnessed two civil wars, a regicide, a republic, a restoration and a revolution in breathless succession. But what was the gardener and staunch royalist Sir Thomas Hanmer (1612-1678) of Bettisfield, in Flintshire, doing during this time? With one hand he was levying 200 supporters of the king to help him defend his patch in north Wales. With the other he was sending tulips to John Lambert (1619-1683), one of Cromwell's generals. Lambert, like Hanmer a besotted tulip fancier, lived at Wimbledon Manor. For his garden, Hanmer sent him "a very great mother-root of Agate Hanmer", one of his best tulips, coloured greyish-purple, deep scarlet and white.

Throughout the cataclysmic events of 17th-century England - the comings and goings of kings and Protectors, the Gunpowder Plot, the plague, the Great Fire of London - the tulip reigned, untoppled, on its flowery throne. It was the most sought after, most precious plant of the 17th-century garden, the flower of the age. This was not just in Britain. The tulip ruled all Europe, holding sway in the Bavarian gardens of the Prince Bishops at Wurzburg and at Nymphenburg, the summer residence of the Electors; in the parterres at Schonbrunn, in the Hapsburg palace in Vienna; in the Mirabelle Gardens originally built for Archbishop Dietrich outside the city walls of Salzburg; at Saint Cloud, Hauts-de-Seine in France, where the Duc d'Orleans, brother of Louis XIV, employed the fine painter Nicolas Robert to record his fabulous collection of tulips.

Tulips, too, mapped the movements of many of those persecuted for their religious beliefs. Like messages written in invisible ink, tulips emerged slowly in the new grounds that Flemish and French refugees were forced to seek in the wake of Philip II's Catholic crusades.

In the second half of the 16th century, these Protestant Huguenots most probably brought the tulip into England from Flanders. Long before the Dutch cornered the market, this was the most important centre of tulip breeding in Europe. Some settled in Norwich. Others, such as the Flemish botanist Lobelius, settled around Lime Street in the City of London. Huguenot refugees brought the tulip into Ireland, too, where the Dublin Florists' Society was founded in 1746 by officers in the Huguenot regiments that had fought for Prince William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne.

In Michigan, tulips arrived with a later wave of early-19th-century Dutch immigrants, members of the Dutch Reformed Church, persecuted by King Willem I. Under their leader, the Rev van Raalte, they quickly colonised Michigan's plains, establishing a regular demand for European plants. The demand was bravely met by a new kind of tulip entrepreneur, the travelling salesman. The Dutchman JB van der Schoot (1825-1878) spent six months in 1849 travelling through the US taking orders for tulip bulbs.

But, for me, the only tulipomania that matters is the one that rages around the English florists' tulips, the most beautiful tulips in the world. These were bred, for the most part, by 19th-century enthusiasts such as the Rev William Wood, a Unitarian minister at the Mill Hill Chapel, Leeds; Tom Storer of Derby, railwayman and tulip maniac who, lacking any garden, grew his tulips along Derbyshire's railway embankments; John Slater of Cheetham Hill, Manchester, who bred the supremely elegant, feathered red-and-white `Julia Farnese'; and Sam Barlow, whose life as apprentice, manager and, finally, proprietor of the Stakehill Bleach Works at Castleton could have provided the entire plot of an Arnold Bennett novel. They were all florists in the original sense of the word, devoting themselves single-mindedly to the culture of a particular flower, developing it by their own breeding to conform to a tightly laid down set of rules, and showing it in sometimes viciously contested competitions.

A Lancashire man, Barlow was born in Medlock Vale, the son of "one of that band of earnest and enthusiastic working-men botanists who have done so much to create a love of beauty and sweetness in the too frequently unlovely life of the Lancashire manufacturing districts". (Gardeners' Chronicle, April 1883.) When his father died, Barlow, aged 30, was made manager of the Stakehill bleach works. Just six years later, he became its owner.

In its day, Stakehill was regarded as a perfect example of the way in which "high culture and exquisite taste can be associated in the closest manner with the requirements of manufacturing industry". Paintings by artists of the Manchester School covered the walls of Barlow's house. More daringly, he also acquired one of the first Impressionist pictures to be bought by an English collector: A Village Street, Louveciennes, painted in 1871 by Camille Pissarro. Cabinets overflowed with "ceramic curiosities". Outside, wagonloads of soil were brought by railway from a plot Sam Barlow owned at Great Ormes Head, Llandudno, to replace the poisoned earth of the neighbourhood. Here Barlow built up the biggest collection of English florists' tulips that anyone had ever seen.

He spared no expense on his hobby and very much poorer florists such as David Jackson, a silk weaver living at Middleton, benefited. Barlow had set his heart on acquiring a tulip bred by Jackson around 1865 and named after his wife. It was a strikingly fine flower, with white petals heavily feathered in glossy black. He wanted, of course, the whole stock of the variety, so that nobody else could say they had it, and offered Jackson the weight of the bulbs in gold. He ended up paying even more but, as the Scottish florist James Douglas said at the time, "they are weak in the head about Manchester".

On 28 May 1893, Barlow, the man who "created a floral paradise amid a forest of chimney shafts", died after falling down the stairs of his Manchester warehouse. Fittingly, his name lives on in a tulip, raised by a fellow florist, the railwayman Tom Storer. The flames licking the petals of Sam Barlow's gold-and-scarlet flower commemorate the heartbreaking devotion of generations of past florists. Of the hundreds of tulip societies that once existed in this country, only the Wakefield Tulip Society in Yorkshire remains. In the petals of the exquisite, rare tulips still exhibited in competition each year by the Wakefield florists, runs the blood of flowers first grown by John Evelyn and John Rea in the 17th century. This is the tulipomania that matters.

Anna Pavord writes on gardening every Saturday in `The Independent'. To order her book, `The Tulip' (Bloomsbury) at the special price of pounds 25 (p&p extra), call 01634 298 036 quoting the reference `25 tulip'