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How the Dutch Conquered the World


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It is impossible to be around the floriculture industry for any length of time without running into the Dutch. They’re everywhere. At a flower trade show anywhere in the world, you’ll see vendor booths dominated by cardboard windmills, blue and white Delft vases and photographs of their legendary tulip fields. Hang around growers in Latin America, or Miami, or southern California, and you’ll always hear a Dutch accent somewhere in the room. This is, in many ways, their industry, one they have exported to the rest of the world and still keep a hand in, watching over it like the wise, all-knowing company founder who just won’t retire.
The Netherlands got into the business over four hundred years ago. In those days, the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company dominated the world trade in spices, furs, sugar, and coffee.

Turkey was an important trading partner for the Dutch, and flowers native to that area made their way to European gardeners through Turkish-Dutch trade routes. It is practically a matter of national folklore that in 1593, a botanist named Carlos Clusius arrived in Holland with his collection of bulbs that included a relatively unknown wildflower from Turkey and Persia — the tulip. Among Europeans, tulips were so unusual that the bulbs were sometimes mistaken for onions and boiled and eaten. Clusius had brought them to Leiden as part of his new post at that university’s botanical garden. This was the first known instance of a tulip arriving in Holland.

It’s hard to imagine what gardeners and botanists must have thought of these exotic, but also surprisingly simple, flowers. A tulip is nothing more than six upright petals that form the shape of a bowl. There’s rarely any scent to speak of. Each plant supports just two or three strappy leaves, and those wither away in the summer. Some of the wild specimens have such narrow, pointed petals that they hardly resemble the flower we think of as a tulip. But tulips had been cultivated since about AD 1000 in the Ottoman Empire, and the specimens that diplomats, merchants, and explorers brought from Turkey were a revelation. They bloomed in glorious, brilliant colors, curved and drooped on their slender stems, and opened gradually, becoming even more beautiful as the petals dropped, one by one, onto the table. It’s no wonder that Dutch masters rushed to paint them in overflowing vases, where they were often portrayed as sensuously drooping blossoms alongside summer peonies and other impossibly out-of-season flowers.


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