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Tulips Became First Commercial Plant

[Above] Tulips in all their glory appeared in James Vick’s October 1879 issue of his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.


It seems hard to think of plants as a commodity.

But that is what they have been for centuries.

During the seventeenth century the French measured social status by what plants, especially flowers, you had in your garden.

Many of the plants appeared in the garden because you had purchased them for your collection.

It was the tulip that first showed how money could be made with a plant.

[above] A tulip, known as “the Viceroy” (viseroij), displayed in the 1637 Dutch catalog Verzameling van een Meenigte Tulipaanen. Its bulb was offered for sale for between 3,000 and 4,200 guilders (florins) depending on weight (gewooge). A skilled craftsworker at the time earned about 300 guilders a year.

Plants Arrived from the Turkish Empire

In his book Flora: An Illustrated History of the Garden Flower Brent Elliott writes, “Tulips were the first plants to be the subject of marketing and commercial exploitation on a large scale.”

Plants were coming into Europe from various parts of the world, but the East gave us the tulip.

Noel Kingsbury in his book Garden Flora writes, “The history of tulips in cultivation is generally agreed to have begun in 10th-century Persia.”

But the commercial success of the tulip in Europe would come a bit later.

Elliott writes of the value of the tulip as a commodity. He says, “The first great wave of plant introductions to reach Western Europe arrived in the sixteenth century from the Turkish empire, which at the time encompassed much of Eastern Europe.”

It was the tulip that became the most coveted of the Eastern plants.

Elliott says, “It was their range, and their capacity to produce variegated forms unpredictably, that made them highly marketable.”

Tulip Beds

Tulip beds have been a part of the landscape ever since.

This 1904 black and white illustration of a tulip bed from Rawson’s seed catalog could represent how tulips appeared in the garden ever since they first arrived from the East. [below]

An illustration that appeared in Boston’s W. W. Rawson Seed Catalog of 1904.
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