Last weekend, we went to the Tulip Festival in Morges with some friends.
The Morges Tulip Festival was awarded the “2019 World Tulip Destination Worth Travelling For” award to highlight its 50th edition in 2020. Although its scale isn’t as large as most festivals, the Morges Tulip Festival is one of the oldest tulip festivals in the world.
Over 145,000 tulips of around 275 varieties are quietly blooming in Parc de L’independence at the shores of Lake Geneva, with colours that are so vibrant and lovely.
One of my favourites is called Fringed Black, attributed to the fluffy fringe at the edge of each dark purple peddle. It was my first time to see a tulip in such likeness that reminded me of a piece of delicate lace.
Stunned by the flamboyance, I asked the questions: why is this extravagantly abundant of colours and shapes are given to just one kind of flower named tulip? What is their story?
Later, I did some research.
Before discovered and traded to Persia by the Turkic tribes, tulips were originally found in the remote valleys of the Tien Shan Mountains, where China and Tibet come up against the borders of Russia and Afghanistan, one of the most inaccessible places on Earth. The predominant colour of those wild tulips was red.
The verse Matthew 6:28-34 came to mind:
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
I wondered when Jesus talked about the flowers, did he think about tulips?
The history of tulips is fascinating. Soon after this flower was introduced to Europe around mid 16th century, the interest for this gorgeous exotic flower was increasing rapidly. The first recorded tulip cultivated in Europe flowered in the garden of one Joseph Heinrich Herwart, near Augsburg, in Bavaria in April of 1559. Visitors came great distances to see the new flowers firsthand.
Botanist Carolus Clusius laid the foundations for Dutch tulip breeding. He experimented with breeding tulips. With his colleagues, they created several hybrids, including the rare variety “Semper Augustus”, which later became a big hit during the Dutch Tulip Mania.
During that time, “Europe was alive with a renewed passion for science, including horticulture. A century or more of refinements in visual arts had gentled peoples’ artistic sensibilities. This fact, combined with the wealth of a burgeoning class of entrepreneurial nouveau-riche, created a situation conducive to a fascination with a rare and beautiful new plant that came to be appreciated for its exotic beauty as well as for its utility as a status symbol.” (Randel A. Agrella, Brief History of Tulips )
The price of the tulips rose higher and higher as more collectors entered into the frenzy. Some collectors would pay as much as a skilled craftsman might earn in 10 years for the worth of a rare variety.
“The crescendo finally was reached in 1636 to 1637. A default on a contract triggered a classic market meltdown, one that’s widely regarded as the archetypal example of a bubble economic scenario. Overnight, fortunes vanished as the financial house of cards collapsed. The event seriously damaged the entire Dutch economy, and recovery took years.” (Randel A. Agrella, Brief History of Tulips )
What surprised me wasn’t the Tulip Mania itself; it’s what the people were crazy about: One of the objects of their desires was the tulip hybrid “Semper Augustus”, whose peddles had the patterns of white and scarlet longitudinal strips. It was documented to have the price that was equivalent to a fashionable house in Amsterdam!
And, here is the finding that shocked me the most and even made me feel sick: as it turned out years after the Tulip Mania, the breaking colour on the flowers’ peddles was, in fact, caused by a virus! In other words, the breed that was adored by thousands and worked as a status symbol for them was a dying, sick one! What an irony!
If tulips had memories, they must have often travelled back in time when they were far from famous and known only by a few herdsmen. Back in the sun-kissed, grass enriched valley, they were free and exact who they were meant to be. They were designed and coloured by God and happy to adorn the greeneries. Maybe their highest purpose was to tell their beholders something as simply as Jesus had told his disciples– if God clothes the grass of the field with beauty as such, he will surely take much more to clothes us and take care of our needs.
However, I’m thankful that they did manage to travel to Europe after all so that I could appreciate their beauty in thousands of forms with my eyes and take in their delightful fragrances without paying a fortune.
Having immersed in their magnificence, I perhaps could understand why the Dutches were so crazy about them. The beauty of this flower evokes a deep longing inside of all of us, just as CS Lewis famously articulated:
“The beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)
Like any other good things in life, whether it’s our family, job, hobby, or elegant house, when we place them too high, even higher than the One who gave them to us in the first place for whatever virus-like, hidden motivation, we are making idols. And the very thing that we love and cherish would turn into a curse.
Let tulips be tulips. And let their beauty join with the longings of our heart to sing a song of eternity.
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