tulip: beauty

Bees and humans may not appear to have much in common, but one thing we certainly share is our attraction to flowers. Bees get pollen from flowers and help them to reproduce. But what do we get? Flowers serve no practical purpose, but we nonetheless dote on them and collectively spend billions of dollars a year to keep them around us—simply because we think they're beautiful.

Flowers belong to a class of plants that form fruit and seed called angiosperms, which first appeared more than 100 million years ago. Until angiosperms came along, most plants reproduced the old-fashioned way, through spores that created genetically identical clones of their parents.

Everyday roles and values are suddenly, thrillingly, suspended, and astounding new possibilities arise.

But angiosperms hit upon a new way of spreading their genes that gave them an evolutionary advantage. It's called sexual reproduction. They produced female cells that stayed on the plant and male cells in pollen that could be spread to fertilize neighboring plants. At the same time, the angiosperms made themselves attractive to bugs, birds and bees, which resulted in these creatures carrying pollen from one plant to the next, creating an incredible explosion of diversity. Then one particular group of these angiosperms came up with an even more ingenious strategy. Through some mysterious, but precise interplay of color, scent and symmetry, these clever angiosperms evolved to appeal not only to bugs, birds and bees, but also to human beings—specifically, to our sense of beauty. And few flowers have done this more successfully than the tulip.

The tulip itself has merely done what any flower does: evolve alongside a particular culture's (or for that matter, animal's) ideal of beauty. Embedded in the genes of every tulip is a blueprint for what will captivate a bumblebee or a hummingbird, a Dutchman or an Ottoman Turk.

At no time was this truer than during the tulipmania that swept Amsterdam between 1634 and 1637, when a single bulb of the most prized tulips fetched a price greater than the grandest canal houses in the city. This brief paroxysm of aesthetic zeal and financial speculation brought the nation's economy to its knees, wiping out the fortunes of many and, for a time, making the flower into a national villain.

Today, long after the events that plunged them into economic catastrophe, the Dutch are again the world's foremost fans of the tulip. The town of Aalsmeer is home to the largest market of tulips in the world. One in every three flowers bought or sold in the world winds its way through Aalsmeer's Dutch Flower Auction, whose floor spans an area larger than 200 football fields. An ever-moving stream of tulips makes its way through the gargantuan structure, a testament to our enduring fascination with the flower and our diligence in disseminating its genes around the globe.