Tuesday Book: On the scent of flower power

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"IF ANYTHING was worth bankrupting yourself for, tulips were," writes Anna Pavord. She will not have lost a penny on this six-year venture, which has already attracted more column inches than most gardening books, as well as serialisation on Radio 4. However, The Tulip is not a gardening book in the conventional sense, nor is it a monograph. But it is definitely a work of great scholarship, tracing the history of the plant with a remarkably colourful past.

Before you embark on The Tulip, I suggest you find a comfortable armchair and put a seriously large cushion on your lap, or your arms will tire well before your curiosity. There is a wonderful illustration on virtually every other page, so it takes until page 279 before you get to the invaluable index of varieties. Pavord writes lyrically about each species, from Tulipa acuminata, "with its crazy, very tall, thin bud opening to creamy flowers sometimes streaked and flecked with red", to T zenaidae, with yellow flowers that are "elegantly waisted, the top third of the flower flipping outwards".

She goes on to describe, in a way any sports writer would envy, the cultivars - tulips bred for show and classified into various divisions, like football stars. Starting with `Abu Hassan', which is a "dark mahogany-red with an edge of gold around the top half of the petals", she continues to `Zwanenburg', which is "a pure white with plum-coloured stamens".

Before Pavord tantalises us with the range of tulips available today, she takes the reader through the plant's origins, moving from its mountain habitats in the East to its pride of place in the sultan's palaces. She explains how the name came about through a wonderful misunderstanding. The Flemish ambassador to the court of Suleyman the Magnificent, in 16th century Constantinople, claimed the honour of introducing the tulip to Europe. He also managed to confuse his interpreter's description of the flower, which looks like a turban ("tulband" in Turkish), with the name of the flower itself, which the Turks called "lale".

The plot thickens as we follow the fame and fortune of the tulip through northern Europe to Britain. Pavord speculates that, if England had not been busy with a civil war in the mid-17th century, we, too, might have been caught up in the financial speculation that spread through Holland. There bulbs were traded in much the same way as the stock market deals in commodities, fuelled by what would be seen today as clever marketing. It takes up to seven years for tulip seed to mature into a bulb of flowering size. Bulbs were often sold as they lay buried in the ground, their potential unknown. Yet at the height of this trading, a single tulip might fetch as much as an Amsterdam town house.

Prized varieties were given elaborate names, such as the famous `Semper Augustus', while the most handsome flowers were painted by the greatest Dutch artists as if they had been society hostesses. This celebrity status added to the mystique of the tulip, as did its unfathomable secret: why certain plants should "break" and then produce such exciting colour combinations. Not until 1928 was it discovered that these colour breaks were caused by a virus that weakened the plants. However, even after the financial crash that marked the end of tulip mania, the Dutch refused to give up on tulips. The rich alluvial soil around Haarlem was soon given over to increased production, which continues to this day.

In 18th century Britain and Ireland, the tulip was no longer the plaything of the rich but a plant that could be enjoyed by anyone who wished to join their local floral society. These societies were devoted to the culture of one plant and their meetings took place in inns. There were magazines that fed the florist's interest, and a great rivalry developed between the north and south of Britain over the perfect form of the florist's tulip. Interestingly, the demise of the floral societies coincided with football's first FA Cup final, played in 1872. Today, only the Wakefield and the North of England Tulip Society remains.

While tulips seemed to be going out of favour in early 20th century Britain, the Dutch seized the moment by launching a new breed called Darwins, named with the permission of Charles Darwin's son. They started a new tulip invasion, and the Dutch now export at least 2 billion tulips a year.

Even though her book covers more ground than one might consider possible, Pavord still seems like a detective who is not quite sure if she has solved all the tulip's mysteries. If she has not got the tulip out of her system, she has certainly succeeded in spreading her passion for the plant.

The reviewer is the editor of `Gardens Illustrated'