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Sarah Hampson: I long to revel in the spring’s stealth bomber of beauty

Every year it happens, that time soon coming, when I long to revel in the brief glory of tulips.

It is perfect that tulips are among the first flowers of spring, nosing up into the world like eager children, full of purity and joy. And I love that I can depend on them, that they will always come, in the same spot, comforting as a parent who promises to be home and always is. It even gives me some peculiar pleasure – in winter, you have to find it where you can, I suppose – to think of them growing and striving under a cover of dirt. A tulip is a sort of stealth bomber of beauty, silent, determined, cunning.

But once they have arrived, even in a bouquet purchased from a store, it is their grace and simplicity that I enjoy. Not blowsy as a rose or frilly like a daffodil, they have a certain quiet and sleek elegance. Sure, they announce themselves in a room, attracting attention, but they do so in the way a mannered lady might, dressed in fine, well-tailored clothes, the hem of her skirt just right, no cleavage on show. Vulgar the tulip is not.

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And then, to make it even more intriguing, consider that this flower has caused episodic periods of wild, cultish enthusiasm. In history as in its own blossoming, the tulips have had brief, heady moments of glory.

The tulip was first used as decoration in 12th-century Anatolia, where it originated. The word "tulip" is, in fact, the Persian word for turban, as it was a Turkish tradition to wear the flower tucked into cloth wound around the head. The popularity of the flower in Europe began in 1554, when a diplomat acquired seeds from a garden near Istanbul and brought them to Vienna.

The tulip, Mike Dash writes in Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, was astonishing to the Europeans, its intense, concentrated colours unlike anything they had seen before. In Holland, the flower found the perfect set of conditions for producing a kind of madness, known as Tulipomania, in the 17th century. Having won independence from Spain, the country was embarking on its golden age. Commerce flourished. Merchants in Amsterdam prospered through lucrative East Indies trading. They also liked to show off how well they did with grand estates set amid beautiful gardens. The tulip, in this context, became the Ferrari of the day. (Hey, the moat in medieval England was a status symbol, too!)

The peak of Tulipomania came in 1636, when some tulip bulbs sold for 10 times the annual salary of a skilled craftsman. One specimen, the Semper Augustus, which has midnight-blue petals topped by a band of pure white and accented with crimson flares, was particularly coveted. Artists painted it and other tulips. They were as exotic as a nude.

The collapse, when it came, was a sudden wilting.

But the Dutch weren't the only ones to have manic episodes over tulips. There was a period when the flower bewitched the rulers of the Ottoman empire as well. Sultan Ibrahim, who ruled in the early part of the 1600s, was mad on some counts – legend has it that he once had all of the 280 women in his harem drowned so he could enjoy the process of replacing them – but rather sane on others, insisting, for example, on the appointment of a Chief Florist. His son, Mehmed IV, who succeeded him in 1647, was the first sultan to plant an imperial garden at the palace devoted solely to tulips. He even established a council of florists whose job it was to judge new cultivars, describing their unique characteristics, then registering and classifying them. They also had the task of giving the varieties poetic names: Pomegranate Lances, Delicate Coquettes, Rose of the Spring, Cup of Gold.

Passionate response to the flower also extends to modern times, Sylvia Plath's poem Tulips being one example. "It [the poem] was occasioned quite simply by receiving a bouquet of red, spectacular tulips while convalescing in hospital," Plath said during a reading recorded for a BBC radio series called The Poet's Voice in the sixties.

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"The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here./Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in," the poem begins. Lying in her hospital bed recovering from an appendectomy, Plath finds the flowers annoying, mocking her depressive state. "The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me./Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe/Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby." Their "sudden tongues and their colour" upset her. They "eat my oxygen," she writes, concluding: "The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals."

Fittingly, Plath's recording of Tulips was itself a kind of brief glory. Starting in 1957, she had approached the BBC in the hope of having some of her poems considered for broadcast, but was rejected. In the summer of 1960, she finally broke in; her reading of one of her poems was first broadcast on Nov. 20, 1960. For the next two years, Plath's voice could be heard regularly on the radio, reading her new works.

Her last broadcast reading was on Jan. 10, 1963. A few weeks later, she took her own life. Plath, too, was beautiful, glorious in her intelligence – and, ultimately, fragile.

Follow me on Twitter: @hampsonwrites

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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