Since the dawn of civilization, man has come up with currencies with which he would buy, trade, and sell things. In early Egypt, grain was a great commodity; in the Americas and some African countries, beads were used. As Americans, we are more familiar with copper, nickel, silver, or paper which represents the value in gold of what we are buying. In 16th and 17th century Holland, the insatiable desire for tulips (of all things) drove the country's economy until 1637 when the economy basically collapsed. How did the Dutch even get to that point?
Introduced to the Netherlands by a botanist at the University of Leiden, it was discovered that the very bulbs that performed so-so in other European countries happened to thrive in Holland. Struck by the beauty of the flower - the ones discolored by a mosaic virus were particularly sought after -- the royalty and the wealthy of the area would pay outrageous sums to possess the bulbs. Later on in the Tulip Craze, they would even pay for the promise of a tulip, which could take more than ten years from sowing the seed to the actual flowering. Because these seeds were hybrids and not propagated from bulblets, these people had no idea what the flower would even look like. All this in the hopes that when their tulip flowered, it may be the next hot variety -- possibly the desired black tulip (like our 'Queen of Night' today).
As could be expected, the Tulip Mania brought out some real maniacs. In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan tells a story of a poor man who finds a black tulip growing in his yard. He sold it to some wealthy businessmen for an outrageous sum of money. When they came to collect it, they threw the bulb to the ground and crushed it. When the man in horror asked what they were doing, they told him that they had developed a black tulip of their own and they didn't want his to compete with theirs on the market. Thats all pretty nuts for a bulb that only flowers for about two weeks max once a year, and only produces a single flower!
Although tulipomania and other factors brought the Dutch to economic ruin, the Netherlands remain the world's greatest tulip producing country. So when installing a mass of tulips in a large-scale project, or a nice clump in your home yard, be careful -- this bulb has a dark past.
Tulip Mania: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulip_mania
The Black Tulip story: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
'Queen of Night' picture: http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1113/533012602_da3d30cc9d.jpg
Cracked tulip picture: http://www.free-photo-download.com/large_images/tu_002.jpg