Orchids are one of the two largest families of flowering plants, with some 28.000 species. And if you consider hybrids and newly bred species it may add up to 100.000. Compared to that, tulips are a small family, with some 75 species. But tulip breeding has created many new species and races that became a complete madness in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. In those days exorbitant prices were paid for tulip bulbs, but it was a speculation bubble that collapsed in 1637. Some people contend that this collapse did great harm to the dutch economy but that is highly contested. Holland was and remained the leading economic and financial power of the era. And to this day it is the largest producer and exporter of tulip bulbs.
The tulip mania has led to many legends, stories and myths about the tulip, but also to some more solid research about its provenance and meaning. I won’t bother you with that, there is sufficient literature.
Apart from being such an enormous family orchids also outshine tulips in variety, durability and sexiness. Of course we are familiar with the cultivated orchids with their flamboyant flowers, but many species in the wild are less impressive, though very beautiful on close inspection. Whereas tulip flowers last for a couple of weeks at the most orchids often flower for months. And by jolly are they sexy. While the pistil and stamen of a tulip flower have their own beauty (see for instance image 11 of the gallery) the flowers of orchids are often a pure erotic extravaganza. The success of the family in sheer numbers may be proof of divine intervention for creationists, but for me it shows that evolutionary success is intimately related to sexual prowess. Which doesn’t mean that I want to marry an orchid. Perhaps have one as a maitresse…
What we see in the way of tulips and orchids is usually heavily crafted. These flowers are works of art, with nature as the base. Natura artis magistra in the most literal sense. So why isn’t it counted among the arts? And why is the total export of tulips from the Netherlands about 250 million euros, more or less the price of three paintings by Picasso, Klimt and/or Van Gogh? Well, Benjamin was talking about the age of mechanical reproduction, but he forgot natural reproduction. The creation of flowers does not lead to singular products, they are not scarce. And they can’t be because they are so very perishable and perishing. Gooooooooone.