Nothing quite says spring like a tulip. These elegant flowers have intrigued Europeans since the late 16th century when they first started arriving from Ottoman Turkey.
Benedict S. Robinson reviews the cultural history of tulips, giving us a rich, contextual reading of the “aspirations and anxieties” aroused by this once-foreign plant at the dawn of the global marketplace.
The plant’s very name points to its exotic origins: Tulipa, the Latin genus name, comes from the Turkish, and ultimately the Persian, word for turban, which the blooms were supposed to resemble.
Robinson puts the tulip into the context of the globalization and colonialism that brought spices, tea, coffee, tobacco, and potatoes (not to mention opium) from distant lands to Europe.
At first, some protested these “strang and forraine” [sic] flowers as alien invaders. Andrew Marvell’s “The Mower Against Gardens” put this perspective into poetic form. In the poem, the mower defends the native beauties of the English countryside against the exotic world of the garden, which is akin to a “green seraglio.” In this exotic, orientalist fantasy of a harem, ruled by tyrants, the tulip is a sexual perversion.
Marvell wasn’t alone: “nature’s bastards” is what one character in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale calls carnations. Robert Herrick described a drooping tulip as “a Virgin newly ravished.”
Tulips were different from other commodities because while they came from elsewhere, they could be grown locally. As a result, the tulip was translated within Europe, too. Robinson writes:
Gardening naturalizes the foreign flower, adapts it to local conditions and local tastes. The flower favored in Turkey thus differed significantly from the varieties cultivated in Europe; as the tulip changed Europe, the flower itself was changed by Europe.