Our ‘foreign’ flower

March 5, 2017

A look at the Tulipomania in Lahore

Our ‘foreign’ flower

They looked back at you, the tulips, standing in the February breeze in the oldest public park in town. In rich strokes of abstract colour, they trooped elegant and sharp, aloof like men. For all the images in your head, the tulips still took you by surprise. Drawn in clear, conservative lines, they seemed sort of left-brained, introverted for all the bright hues of their turbans.

We had gone to see them on a weekday, a day for retired men and old ladies in wheelchairs, people horticulturally inspired. There were also the furtive young couples who whispered into each other’s ears, broke into cloudbursts of laughter, and walked alongside each other, touching minimally. And children, of course, they grew like grass, everywhere.

They say, more than half the people who live in this country are children and the young. That should mean they need to grow hope here. But Tulipa took all this in serenely. These were wise, well-travelled creatures, the tulips, and had gone through the rise and fall of human empires to become one of Europe’s canonical flowers over the ages.

Taken from Ottoman Turkey by European ambassadors to the sultan’s court in mid-sixteenth century, tulips had seduced people in Vienna, Antwerp, Paris, and London as metaphors of perfection but it was in Holland in the seventeenth century that they turned into a madness -- Tulipomania -- that ruled and ruined finance houses, historians inform us.

The bulbs were then traded in gold and in promissory notes, stolen and smuggled and sold through court intrigues, spies, tradesmen, and naturalists in search of the rarest blooms, men who were destroyed by their ambition through vicissitudes of nature. In eighteenth-century Turkey, tulips had brought down the empire of Sultan Ahmet III for his decadent and self-indulgent spring garden parties. In seventeenth-century England, the Queen had faced the condemnation of the Protestant puritans of masque balls celebrating the bloom.

These were wise, well-travelled creatures, the tulips, and had gone through the rise and fall of human empires to become one of Europe’s canonical flowers over the ages.

But the kings and the queens were only doing the tulip’s bidding in helping it travel and propagate in what Darwin called "artificial selection." The blooms probably did not see anything artificial about the whole arrangement.

Chief botanist and project director at Jinnah Gardens, Mr Tajjamal Javed told us in Lahore too the tulips had enticed the wealthy out of their stolid mansions to come pay tribute to Semper Augustus. Dignitaries and municipal authorities had come to marvel at this foreign flower from colder climes growing in Lahore’s sweaty springtime. The gardeners had been awarded handsome sums of money and people had come from as far away as Gilgit-Baltistan to discuss the future of the bulb.

Earlier, when a woman came up with the idea, there had been grumbling among the board of directors about the need to exhibit such an opulent flower in a poor country. Everyone came around later and concurred for one reason: growing tulips in Lahore was education about a possibility.

This was not the first time tulips had been cultivated in Lahore. They had been imported earlier by Royal Palm, an elite club, but Jinnah is a public park and therefore more important.

Sameena 4

Besides, there was always the wild variety growing in Islamabad, although the curated bulbs in Lahore had been bought from the Dutch. Tulipa is the national flower of the neighbouring Iran, a small fact that is eclipsed perhaps for political reasons.

Flowers have always understood the politics of men. Long before men arrived in the evolutionary or the creational chain, as far back as in the dinosaur age, flowers had learnt how to read the desires of bees and moths, butterflies and tiny hummingbirds. These visitors had been rewarded in nectar, as nests for eggs, even as simulated mates for small insects.

With men, flowers had traded in metaphors of beauty, vanity, and greed; tulips more so than others.

In the effort of the gardeners in the Lahore park, perhaps there was another aspiration too: To give the people hope in beauty, especially the children who came in school buses and young students from the nearby universities.

When asked about some rare species and the black tulip or Queen of the Forest, the director explained a little desperately: "We wanted simple, happy colours. We need happy colours."

Flowers know us well. Historically, it was when trees learnt how to turn green leaves into tiny flowers that their population had soared. The trees transpired so heavily that clouds were formed and rainforests were created. It was when flowers learnt how to produce seeds and hide them in a succulent wrap for smaller animals like bush mice and fruit bats tat mammals became stronger, followed by the primates, our early ancestors. So, in a sense, flowers made us.

For all their beauty, tulips know mortality just like us. A singular bloom on a steely stem will shatter all its petals or curl up into itself neatly as it dies, not replicable from bulb or seed. The offspring grown from seed will always mutate, become different from the parent.

That was February 13. The day the bomb went off on the Mall Road.

New research in natural history argues that plants communicate with each other in a deep and complex vocabulary and respond to human presence. They do not simply compete for a place in the sun or kill weaker species, a projection of human attributes on to them by natural scientists like Darwin.

In new theory, plants are connected to each other in an underground telegraph system which is more than a warning signal against danger and for defence against predators and disease. Trees move over to make room for the young, send a plant in trauma more carbon dioxide, store memory for transfer to special cases. Mother trees are known to have protected entire forests by signalling messages of wisdom in times of crises and killing a mother or hub tree is what makes a forest vulnerable to predation.

On that day in February, we returned home wondering what the tulips made of such human behaviour. Did they think the human species was failing? Could the potent beauty of a plant like the tulip teach us anything? The animals at the nearby zoo could be overheard crying.

Our ‘foreign’ flower