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Tulip Mania

Tulips in Agecroft Hall's Sunken Garden

The cultivation of the tulip stretches back to the Ottoman Empire (fourteenth to early twentieth centuries). The word ‘tulip’ comes from the Turkish word for turban, and this flower was growing in Turkey as far back as AD 1000. The tulip was originally used for its medicinal purposes. Tulip flowers were used in poultices for insect bites and for relief from scratches, itches and other skin irritations. By the sixteenth century, tulips were being enjoyed for their beauty, and preferred blooms were being propagated for the pleasure of the sultans.

Tulips were introduced into Europe directly from Central Asia. Carolus Clusius (1526-1609) is credited with bringing the tulip to the Netherlands in 1593. A humanist, physician and botanist, Clusius cultivated tulips in the botanic gardens at Leiden University. He made observations of the effects of a tulip breaking virus on blooms, making particular bulbs more vibrant and valuable. This discovery ushered in the “tulip "in the Netherlands of 1630’s and eventually the tulip bulb industry of today.

The tulip was introduced into England during this period of Dutch tulip mania by French and Flemish emigrants, with an official introduction date of 1578. Aristocratic tulip enthusiasts filled their estates with these and other exotic flowers. Eventually the tulip would move down the economic chain and become available to the average gardener.

Much of what we know of the tulip during Tudor times comes from two contemporary garden writers. John Gerard, physcian, gardener and curator of the physic garden belonging to the College of Physcians, produced the first formal recording of growing plants. His work, Herballer General Historie of Plantes, presents the shape, size, use and character of more than 1,000 species of plants. It was essentially the first plant catalog. His own garden included 30 different species of tulip in 1596. John Parkinson (1567-1650), botanist, herbalist and apothecary to James I, authored the first published book on English gardening. His Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (Park-in-Sun's Terrestrial Paradise, 1629) describes plant cultivation, and Theatrum Botanicum (The Botanical Theatre or Theatre of Plants, 1640), the most complete English treatise on plants of its time.

John Gerard

Photo curtesy of

For 200 years, tulips have been blooming in the gardens of Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, 12 miles southwest of central London. The ponds in the king’s “pond yard” (boasting three ponds filled with fish for consumption) were landscaped,drained and terraced in the 1690’s for Queen Mary II (1662-1694) to display her exotic plants. Today this sunken garden – The Pond Garden – is filled with tulips each spring. Tulips bloom later than most bulbs in English gardens. The earliest bloom in March and the greatest number in April and May. This year, Hampton Court Palace gardeners have planted over 20,000 bulbs!

English Tulip Bulbs

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At Agecroft Hall, our Sunken Garden is modeled after the garden at Hampton Court Palace. It is smaller in size but laid out with an ornamental fish pond (There are fish and occasionally a very noisy frog or two!), terraced flower beds, and a banqueting (dessert) house beyond the hedge. Each year our horticultural staff plant approximately 4,000 tulip bulbs in a varying number of varieties, usually upward of 50 different types. Make sure to come and visit our Sunken Garden this spring! The tulips are gorgeous in April and May!

Lucy Worsley, Historic Royal Palaces, Youtube





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