Each fall,millionss of gardeners bury bulbs in the earth, eagerly anticipating the rewards that springtime will bring. Months later, thick green leaves poke through the soil, soon revealing their payload: tulip blossoms in spectacular variety from prim to ostentatious. These new stamps from U.S Postal Service feature closeup views of 10 different tulips in a rainbow of colors.
A member of the lily family (Lilliaceae), the tulip (genus Tulipa) originated as a wildflower in Central Asia. There, despite the dry, rocky environment, these tulip ancestors were able to survive because they could draw nourishment from the bulb. Over time, traders carried them west along the Silk Route to Perisa, where cultivation of them is thought to have begun in the 10th century. By the 16th century, tulips were the rage in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire (now Istanbul, Turkey). The name “tulip”, in fact, derives from a Turlish version of the Perisan word for “turban“, an allusion to the flower’s shape.
After diplomats in Constantinople shipped bubls home to western Europe, the Dutch developed effective ways to cultivate and market flowers. The tulip trade remains an important part of their nation’s economy 400 years later.
Dutch immigrants brought tulip bulbs to America, perhaps as early as the 1600s. The flower has become a dazzling part of the landscape here, and we now import more than one billion bulbs per year. Tulips can be grown in most of the century, outside of the Deep South, and gardeners can choose among almost endless varieties.