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Top 10 facts to share about … tulips

Tulips have inspired philosophers, sparked an economic meltdown and have been likened to a turban. Not many plants can claim such a varied cultural history.

It’s an odd time of year to be writing about tulips. In the northern hemisphere, springtime tulips are a distant memory. In the southern hemisphere, they’re months away.

But two recent publications caught my eye.

One was a peer-reviewed scientific paper in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society on tulip cultural history, molecular phylogenetics and classification.

The other was a piece by philosophy professor Michael Marder about the significance of the tulip for philosopher Immanual Kant. It turns out that Kant was obsessed with flowers and Marder tries to nut out why.

As you’d imagine, these two publications tackle the history and cultural significance of tulips from very different perspectives.

Here are my top 10 snippets:

  1. Persian poets wrote about the beauty of tulips from the early 12th century
  2. The tulip became a national symbol for the Ottomans and a period in the 1700s would later be named the ‘tulip era’
  3. The cultural significance of tulips in the Middle East is still clear today. For instance, Turkey has several places called Laleli (place of tulips) and there are tulip designs on tiles, ceramics, textiles, carpets, manuscripts, sculptures, murals and headstones
  4. The Turkish word for tulip is lale, which is spelt with the same Arabic letters as Allah, and so tulips are often used as religious symbols
  5. The Persian word dulband, or its Turkish equivalent türbent, meaning turban, gave rise to the English word tulip
  6. The first tulip bulbs reached Antwerp in 1562. But they were mistaken for onions and roasted over a fire or were planted in gardens with vegetables. Hardly surprisingly, they soon died
  7. Tulips spread across Europe and in 17th century France entire properties were traded for a single tulip bulb
  8. The rise and fall of tulip bulb prizes probably sparked the famous tulip mania in Holland in the 1600s, the first recorded economic boom and bust
  9. German philosopher Kant wrote about the beauty of tulips briefly in Critique of Judgement and was believed to favour wearing colour combinations that reminded him of flowers. For instance, his biographer wrote how Kant teamed yellow with brown
  10. Scientists today disagree about the number of tulip species, but the latest number is 76.

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