Tulips: A 17th-Century Craze Goes On-Line

Computer Life column for September 12, 1998

Richard Gordon

Folks who read this column regularly probably expect this week's edition to be a back-to-school column or a homage to Roger Maris and Mark McGwire.

Instead, I'm going to surprise my neighbors and go gardening--on line.

I have a well-deserved neighborhood reputation for having a brown thumb: Marigolds and Vincas are about the only plants I seem unable to kill--not including the "undesirable ground cover" that others call "weeds." Several of my near neighbors have beautiful front gardens; meanwhile, there are my four lonely Marigolds, standing sentinel in my weed patch.

I remember the last garden with which I had some success; I think I put in Daffodil, Crocus, and Tulip bulbs whose annual return masked my lack of gardening skill.

Coincidentally, this week I found a reference to an on-line edition of the Tulip Book of P. Cos, a 17th-century Dutch nurseryman, in some of my old notes. What had intrigued me about this collection at Wageningen Agricultural University was how crazed for new tulips the Dutch gentry were. The 17th-century mania for new variegated tulips outstripped anything you've seen at a modern American flea market.

I went to the address in my notes. Alas, the server was not responding. So I began checking the Web for references to this book.

I found lots of interesting sites, but every link I found at libraries and gardening sites pointed to the address I was using.

Among the best sites I visited was Karen Fletcher's "The Garden Gate (www.prairienet.org/ag/garden/homepage.htm). It had very helpful information for expert gardeners and for novices like me.

I also learned that maintaining a flower bed filled with bulbs and other perennials is a lot more work than I remembered. Time Warner's "The Virtual Garden" (www.pathfinder.com/vg/) told me how much bone meal and what fertilizers to use (and when) to make sure my bulbs came up in full glory.

And the Delaware Cooperative Extension Web area (bluehen.ags.udel.edu/coopext1/homepage/coophome.htm) cautioned me that "A permanent bed does not mean that you can plant it and forget it. A lot of maintenance is required to keep the perennials weed-free and in bounds."

After many detours, I finally found Cos' Tulip Book. Instead of sensing that I was looking for "tulips" and suggesting that I go buy bulbs at Garden.com--something that happened at two other search engines, Excite (www.excite.com) took me to the new location hosted by the International Bulb Society (www.bulbsociety.com/BULB_ART/tulipbook/tulipintro.html).

The difficulty of my search points to a problem with using the Web for research. If libraries from Virginia to Japan and search engines from San Francisco to London all have an old entry for on-line information, it can take months for all those Web sites to catch up with a new address.

Once I'd found the catalog, I could browse through the prices and pictures of those 17th-century flowers. More importantly, these images from a rare historical artifact are readily available for anyone in the world to see.

Instead of rushing off to buy bone meal and bulbs, I enjoyed the privilege of looking at these subtle, hand-colored drawings and paintings of more than 50 different types of tulip.

I'll be darned if I can tell why one red-and-white tulip sold for a small fortune and why another was a mere 60 Guilders. But then, a lot of the Beanie Babies look alike to me, too.

Tip of the week

Are you battling technolust while using a 2-year-old computer? You can usually improve the performance of either a Windows or Macintosh system by adding memory.

At about $2/megabyte, it's a lot cheaper to put in 64M of RAM than to buy this week's hot new system.

Copyright © 1998, The News Journal Company

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Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to richard@inet.net, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.