Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Tulips from the Levant

(Photo: Tulipa undulatifolia)

Holland is known for its bulbs and especially tulips. Tulips from Amsterdam are world famous, but did you know that the tulip is also the flower of Turkey? Tulips from Istanbul should be as famous as those from Amsterdam.

It is now common knowledge that the famous Dutch bulbs – like the tulips – originated in the region that is now Turkey (see: Tulips from Lesvos). What I did not know is that the Turkish are also very fond of tulips. The name of this special flower originated during the Ottoman Empire and is derived from the Persian word dulband, which means turban. Some say that the tulip is named after the turban because its shape resembles this headgear, others say the flower is named so because for a period the Ottomans loved this flower so much that they decorated their turbans with tulips!

And they were crazy for tulips. Lots of merchants went bankrupt due to the speculations during the tulip mania in Holland (1630 -1637). A few decades later, another tulip mania started in the Ottoman Empire: the Tulip Era (1718 - 1730), which lasted only twelve years, but was important enough to become history.

In this period the Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha decided that business was better than making war. He especially promoted trade relations with western countries. As there was less war related gossip, the elite of Istanbul started being interested in flowers; and because the then ruling Sultan Ahmet III was crazy about tulips, they focussed on tulips. Each spring the Sultan had legendary parties in the gardens of his palace. The guests could not only enjoy the many tulips planted in the garden; the sultan made sure that thousands of tulips were gathered from everywhere in Istanbul. They were placed in coloured bottles and displayed where no tulips normally grew. As the parties were given during the evenings, illumination was supplied by many lamps and candles as well as by tortoises that shuffled about among the flowers with lanterns on their backs.

The newest garden fashions were discussed and there were flower shows, and the person who presented the most beautiful tulip was rewarded with a certificate from the Sultan and a bag of golden coins.

Tulips have remained in Ottoman gardens and since this period their images are everywhere: on embroidery, clothing, in books and in paintings. Even now, the planes of Turkish Airlines have a tulip on their trunk and the municipality of Istanbul annual has three million tulips planted in the city.

Like the famous Dutch Keukenhof, Istanbul also has a famous flower garden: the Emirgan Park on the Bosporus. The park was created in the seventeenth century and is one of the largest in Istanbul. Besides a great collection of special trees and plants, since 2005 it has an annual tulip festival in April where people can enjoy tulips in all sizes and colours.

The Turkish word for tulip is lâle. Lalades comes from this Turkish word and that is what tulips are named on the Greek island of Chios. I am sure that there will be tulips in many gardens on Chios, but this Aegean island just south of Lesvos is famous for its wild tulips. At this time of the year you will find many of them and there are six different species.

Lesvos is not known for its tulips although there are four different species growing on the island. I think they are difficult to find because they look very much the same as the poppy’s that colour the island bright red in the same period. From a distance you can’t tell the difference between a poppy and a tulip so you just have to bump into them by accident or you have to know where to look.

I have never visited Chios when the tulips are flowering, so I do not know if you need a lengthy search there in order to find a field with tulips. Here on the island such a search can last for hours because they prefer to grow on faraway and difficult to reach areas, like on the higher mountain slopes of Lepetymnos and Olympos, as well in the neighbourhood of Klapados. Yesterday I saw wild tulips near Vrisa: they were hidden in a wood on a steep slope, but they were great with fancy undulated leaves and red pointed flower petals:Tulipa undulatifolia. Rumours say that a yellow tulip flowers on the island too. Who knows where?

Today it is the first of May. Here in Greece they celebrate the start of the tourist season, Labour Day and the day of the flowers. Garlands are hung on the doors and lots of Greeks go for a picnic in nature (or they ‘picnic’ in a restaurant). The island now is so gorgeous with all its wild flowers and although I have to admit that a field full of wild tulips is very impressive, I do miss those flowers shops in Amsterdam where they sell lots of different tulips, which you can buy, bring home and put in a vase and for weeks you can enjoy these wonderful flowers. I do understand why there were tulip mania periods. If I had lots of money I would have started one myself.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

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