17th century Dutch watercolor, from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The tulips are blooming everywhere. You probably know something about the legendary obsession with tulips in old Holland and Flanders, a flowery fad based on bulb-price speculation that briefly drove the local economy in the mid-17th century—until the market crashed. But I only recently realized that the tulip craze, like most sweeping fashions, actually started in France. (I have a little book called Tulipomania that explains it all.)

In Paris in the early 1600s, when the tulip was still relatively unknown there, women of fashion tucked rare tulip blooms into the bosoms of their low cut dresses. The look was a huge success, and the French simply had to have more of this flower. In exchange for one bulb of the ‘mere brune‘ variety, a miller traded away part of his mill. Another aficionado traded his brewery for a bulb called ‘Tulipe brasserie,’ in honor of the transaction. One bride’s dowry was a single bulb of an extremely rare breed, forever thereafter known as, ‘mariage de ma fille.’ Now it all makes more sense. Soon, to the North, Rubens was painting his wife in her new tulip garden and the passion for tulips spread like fire.