Tulip Fever

We love a tulip at Electric Daisy Flower Farm. We plant thousands of bulbs in late autumn to stock our flower shop the following spring. As ethical growers, we have to pay for certification to prove that we are not using harmful chemicals or toxic pesticides in our growing practices. In order to tell the world that the majority of our flowers are “Organic” we have to go through a rigorous three-year certification period. We pay annually to be inspected.

Our field grown La Belle Epoque tulips:

Recently we visited a large-scale tulip farm in Lincolnshire with a mind to ordering their flowers when ours are not yet in season. The first thing we discovered is that the bulbs on this flower farm never actually touch the soil. The clever horticultural scientists have discovered a way of growing hydroponically, so that the contaminating, “dirty” soil can be cut out of the equation. 

The Lincolnshire bulbs arrive in the UK in huge wooden crates, a continuous stream of shipments from Holland on a rolling timetable to keep up production throughout the year. The bulbs are treated with fungicides and pesticides and then drenched in bleach before they are impaled on the spikes of the plastic crates that will be their growing stations. Millions of bulbs are processed every day on table-high conveyor belts, and moved into the hydroponic growing facility. If it’s winter, biomass boilers burn night and day to keep the temperatures up and the tulips growing.

The monoculture tulip farm we visited:

Finally, the tulips leave this mega-farm packaged in attractive biodegradable paper wraps, looking the very picture of “harmless” and “natural”. How could consumers possibly know that these flowers have been through so many industrial processes? Who could imagine the toxic load that these all-too-perfect blooms must be exuding into the atmosphere of our homes?

On our flower farm, tulips are grown in the field, where they might suffer weather damage and animal or insect predation. When we harvest them, our tulips are often caked in mud, which is irritating and time-consuming to remove before they are sold. But it’s all worth it. Gorgeous as they are, we value the occasional, tiny and insignificant imperfections as proof that Nature has left her mark.

Our field grown tulips:

Today we associate tulips with clogs and windmills, but in fact tulips originate from the steppes of central Asia. They were discovered growing naturally in the foothills of mountains in Iran, and were first cultivated in Istanbul as early as 1050. The story goes that western visitors to the Ottoman court saw the Sultan wearing a tulip in his turban. When they asked what it was, the Sultan thought they were merely curious about his headgear, and gave them the word for “turban,” which then was corrupted by westerners into the name “Tulip”.

Those original tulips were quite different from the ones cultivated today. The Turks favoured single flowers with long spiky petals. Over the centuries tulips have been bred to grow en masse in municipal gardens. They have been truly democratised, and our standard of what constitutes a perfect tulip is a far cry from the original bulb found in Iran. Those bulbs were considered a rare commodity, something that only the Turkish court could enjoy. When tulip season arrived, lavish parties were organised. The walled gardens where the flowers grew were decorated, and each tulip had a mirror beside it to create the illusion of multiple stems. The harem dressed in their finest flowing silk kaftans and wafted through the gardens helping to showcase the tulips. To top it all, tortoises roamed the paths with lit candles strapped to their backs . . . 

Fast-forward a few centuries and we are amongst the windmills, because today the Dutch have a monopoly on tulips. After their obsession with the bulb caused the first financial boom and bust in what became known as the “Tulip Fever” of 1637, they learnt how to grow them commercially and took over the world with what is now their treasured national flower.

British growers rely on Dutch bulbs. There are no large-scale growers left in the UK who could produce enough bulbs to satisfy demand. It takes twenty-five years to develop a new tulip, and only the Dutch have the knowledge, experience and expertise to invest in this area. Horticulture in the UK is woefully underfunded and under-invested, but that’s a story for another day.

Instead, after reading this post, I hope you will enjoy our ethically grown tulips even more than you already do —and I’m also hoping that when we are next in tulip season we can start an online craze for historical recreations. We expect Dutch Master floral arrangements, silk kaftans and mirrored gardens to be tagged on your social channels, as you waft with your tortoises . . . No pressure.

Inspired by the Dutch Masters: 


1 comment

Your Dutch Masters arrangement is stunning. Thanks so much for the insight into the mass produced tulips – scary what goes on that us consumers aren’t aware of.

Rosie June 16, 2021

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