Today is the birthday of Charles de L’Écluse (19 Feb 1526 – 4 Apr 1609), also known as Carolus Clusius. A Flemish doctor and botanist of French descent, he introduced the tulip to Holland, and effectively shaped the image of an entire nation.
Clusius worked throughout Europe as a collector of botanical information and material and also introduced various new plants from outside Europe. In 1593 he became the Chair of Botany at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Here he established one of the earliest botanical gardens, where he introduced and grew a wide variety of flowering bulbs, including the tulip. He planted the first tulip bulbs in 1593, and hence 1594 is considered the official date of the first tulip flowering in the Netherlands.
Interest in the lovely tulip flowers quickly blossomed (excuse the pun!), to such an extent that it resulted in a frenzy that came to be known as the ‘tulip mania’. Tulip prices spiraled out of control, and they were even treated as currency by speculators. Tulips became the fourth largest export product of the Netherlands (behind gin, herring and cheese) and many traders became very rich very quickly. It is said that at the height of tulip mania, sought-after tulip bulbs were sold for prices 10 times the annual income of a skilled worker. Of course the economic bubble couldn’t be sustained, and as quickly as fortunes were made, fortunes were lost. Subsequent to this manic period the bulb industry stabilised, eventually growing again to become a huge international trade. Holland currently produces approximately 3 billion tulip bulbs annually, of which the majority is exported.
Clusius’ work laid the foundations of Dutch tulip breeding and their bulb industry, including the tulip industry in particular – a flower that to this day forms an integral component of the visual identity of the Netherlands. The country is popular for its tulip festivals, and it plays host to the world’s largest permanent display of tulips, at Keukenhof.