17th century Europe was an era of emerging luxury in which status was often defined by the one's ability to conquer the wild and take control of its beauty. In order to display ones wealth, a flower collection was needed. Like anything within a society, the value of flowers was decided by rarity, which due to a strange sequence of events created a brief moment when tulip bulbs were counted amongst the most valuable objects on earth.
Tulip cultivation in Europe was started in the Netherlands around 1593 by the Flemish botanist Charles de l'Écluse, who had received a collection of tulip bulbs as a gift from the Ottoman Empire. Tulips grow from bulbs, and can be propagated through both seeds and buds. Seeds from a tulip will form a flowering bulb after 7–12 years. When a bulb grows into the flower, the original bulb will disappear, but a clone bulb forms in its place, as do several buds. Properly cultivated, these buds will become bulbs of their own.
Certain color varieties like striped tulips could only be grown through buds, not seeds, and so cultivating the most appealing varieties took years. Tulips bloom in April and May for only about a week, and the secondary buds appear shortly thereafter.
As the flowers grew in popularity, professional growers paid higher and higher prices for bulbs. By 1634, in part as a result of demand from the French, speculators began to enter the market. In 1636, the Dutch created a type of formal futures markets where contracts to buy bulbs at the end of the season were bought and sold. This trade was centered in Haarlem during the height of a bubonic plague epidemic, which may have contributed to a culture of fatalistic risk taking.
The contract price of rare bulbs continued to rise throughout 1636. At its zenith, a single tulip bulb was valued at the equivalent of $400,000. However in February 1637, tulip bulb contract prices collapsed abruptly and the trade of tulips ground to a halt.