Return to Conrad Gesner

Carolus Clusius (Charles de l'Ecluse)

Humanist, physician, and botanist, Carolus Clusius, the Latinized version of Charles de l'Ecluse (1526-1609), was most responsible for introducing the tulip to the Netherlands, transforming gardens there and throughout Europe. Indeed, one contemporary described him as the father of all the beautiful gardens in Europe. In the sixteenth century, botany was becoming a discipline in its own right and no longer considered a branch of medicine, the plants of interest only for their medicinal or culinary properties. Clusius was one of the first in Northern Europe to recognize plants for their own sake, valuing their beauty as well as their use.

In 1573, he was invited by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II to establish a botanical garden (Hortus Botanicus) in the capital at Vienna, for which Busbecq had given him some bulbs and seeds the year before, although Clusius did possess tulips of his own. The emperor's son Rudolf II provided only dilatory support for the imperial garden, however, and Clusius was dismissed in 1577. Eventually, in the autumn of 1593, he was persuaded to accept a position at the University of Leiden as honorary professor of botany, where he supervised the establishment of a botanical garden, bringing with him his own collection of tulip bulbs (including variegated ones) which he planted that year. The next spring, in 1594, the first tulips flowered in the Netherlands.

That same year, Clusius wrote a colleague complaining that the exclusive world of the connoisseur was being cheapened by too many people becoming involved in the flower trade. Everyone was asking for flowers and, instead of the free exchange among a like-minded coterie of collectors, they now were being bought and sold as commodities. Refusing to give his bulbs to those he suspected of wanting them only to resell for a profit, most then were stolen, usually by a servant or gardener. Indeed, Clusius lost bulbs every year between 1580 and 1584, with more losses in 1596 and 1598. (In 1581, some of his most valuable bulbs were stolen by a servant while Clusius was in England, to be sold, he suspected, to a noblewoman who now displayed the flowers in her own garden.) Although lamentable, the thefts did disperse his collection, the purloined bulbs becoming the progenitors of flowers that bloomed throughout the Netherlands.

  As court physician and prefect of the imperial garden, Clusius traveled all over Europe in search of new specimens. He first wrote about the tulip (left) in an appendix to Rariorum Aliquot Stirpium per Hispanias Observatarum Historia (1576) on the flora of Spain and Portugal, which described for the first time approximately two hundred rare and exotic plants. The illustrations later were used by the printer, Christopher Plantin of Antwerp, in the herbals of Lobelius and Dodoens), and again in an appendix to Rariorum Aliquot Stirpium, per Pannoniam, Austriam, & Vicinas Quasdam Provincias Observatarum Historia (1583) on the plants of Austria and Hungary (Pannonia had been the name of the Roman province). Clusius collected this material, together with descriptions of many new plants (including the potato) and his unpublished work on fungi, in his masterpiece Rariorum Plantarum Historia (1601), where he observed that weakened tulips "break" in color, although he never was able to determine the cause.

In the 1583 edition, Clusius relates that an Antwerp merchant sometime earlier had received a consignment of cloth that unexpectedly included tulip bulbs, which were mistaken for onions, some of which the clothier supposedly ate, discarding the rest in his garden. (Although the year 1562 has been suggested, Clusius himself gives no date.) The unfamiliar flower that bloomed the following spring piqued the interest of Joris Rye from nearby Mechelen, who transplanted the few surviving bulbs to his own garden. Rye wrote to Clusius about the discovery and, although he then was in Spain, he may have seen them when he returned the next year. If not, he certainly would have seen them when he moved to Mechelen in 1568 to stay with a wealthy friend, whose garden he designed. This all is conjecture, however, as Clusius does not mention tulips in his writings until 1570, when a correspondent thanked him for the gift of a small bulband asked for a larger one.

Eventually, this fascination with the flower would effloresce as tulipmania.

As ambassador to the court of Süleyman I, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq was accompanied by his personal physician, Willem Quackelbeen. In 1557, he wrote to Pier Andrea Mattioli, a colleague in Prague, the first account of the horse chestnut, so named, he says, because they were thought to cure horses that were broken-winded (heaves or shortness of breath). In his own letters, Mattioli implies that Quackelbeen had sent him seeds (which did not germinate), as well as a branch of the tree. He printed the first illustration of the horse chestnut in 1563, commenting that it shows a twig with fruit sent to him by Busbecq himself.

In the Rariorum Aliquot Stirpium (1583), Clusius remarks that he had received a living specimen in 1581, this time from a successor to Busbecq as ambassador to Constantinople. The woodcut (right) was made from Clusius' original drawing of the young plant, which was cultivated in the Hapsburg gardens in Vienna but had not yet flowered. Eventually grown throughout Europe, both the lilac and horse chestnut (which Busbecq is credited with having introduced) are native to the mountains of the Balkan peninsula. Busbecq also was the first European to describe yogurt and boasted that he had introduced the sweet fig.




Typically for the time, many of the woodcuts in the Rariorum Plantarum Historia (1601) later were used in the 1633 edition of The Herball by John Gerard. Dodoens' Pemptades had been preceded by his Cruydt-Boeck (1554), published in Flemish and translated into English by Henry Lyte (1578) from the French translation by Clusius (1557), which, incidentally, was Clusius' first publication.

The woodcut of the tulip is from Rariorum Aliquot Stirpium per Hispanias Observatarum Historia (1576) and in the collection of the University of Leiden. It may seem curious that a tulip would be illustrated in a book on the flora of Spain, but Bermejo and Sánchez suggest that, rather than having been introduced to Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, tulips came from Muslim Andalusia in southern Spain, where the flowering bulb (described as a "Macedonian onion") is mentioned in both agricultural treatises and poetic works as early as the eleventh century—five hundred years before. The two treaties quoted by the authors, however, describe the flower as a narcissus "similar to a lily" and "a kind of yellow narcissus." They also remark on the marvelous and aromatic scent of the flower—a charm that one pamphlet published in 1636 (during the height of tulip mania) declared tulips specifically to lack.

The bust of Clusius is in the old Academy building at the University of Leiden and modeled after an 1575 engraving by Martin Rota.

References: Ein Garten Eden (2001) by H. Walter Lack and translated by Martin Walters; Tulipomania (1999) by Mike Dash; Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (2007) by Anne Goldgar. Clusius' observations on tulips has been collected in A Treatise on Tulips by Carolus Clusius of Arras (1951) translated by W. van Dijk; “Tulips: An Ornamental Crop in the Andalusian Middle Ages” (2009) by J. Esteban Hernández Bermejo and Expiración García Sánchez, Economic Botany, 63(1), 60-66.

Return to Top of Page