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A Passion for Tulips: Holland & Wakefield

26 Apr 2021

Tulips originate from Central Asia and weren’t brought to Europe until the 1500s when the striking colours captivated people who were eager to grow them. By 1634 the flowers had become a fashionable commodity, which led to the phenomenon known as Tulipomania.

In Holland between 1634 and 1637 the price of tulips escalated with a desirable bulb selling for thousands of florins. Houses were mortgaged against the bulbs and tulip traders became fantastically rich, until the moment when the bubble of speculation burst, and fortunes were lost – a similar pattern to our modern financial crashes.

In the 18th and 19th centuries a different kind of tulip fever took hold, as all over Britain groups of passionate growers, known as florists, met in pubs as local societies, to compete in the breeding and presentation of specific types of flowers – tulips included. Indeed, from the 17th century the word florist meant somebody who dedicated themselves to the growing of certain key plants. The tulips were grown and bred to match specific parameters of colour, purity, and shape.

At The Hepworth Wakefield Garden we were particularly keen to celebrate tulip growing as the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society, which was established in 1836, is now the last of its kind and provides a home for historic tulip growing in the UK.

The society thrives to this day, with its members growing and exhibiting English Florists’ Tulips, some of which are the direct genetic descendants of those grown hundreds of years ago.  The flowers are exhibited at spring flower shows, with the blooms placed in brown-glass beer bottles for judging, which beautifully highlights the incredible colouring and luminosity of the precious blooms. Do have a look at The Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society website and archive.

In our garden we couldn’t plant actual English Florists’ Tulips, as they are precious bulbs, difficult to come by and historic treasures, so our tulips are strong-growing, modern varieties. Most are bred by Dutch tulip growers who have become the world experts in the breeding and farming of new varieties since the days of Tulipomania. We have selected some cultivars such as ‘Helmar’ and ‘Grand Perfection’ because they are reminiscent of the patterning on the flamed and feathered flowers grown by the society and illustrated in the paintings by the Dutch masters.