Dutch Tulip Hunters Travel Rough, Armed with Cameras

Dutch tulips are one of the world’s most familiar and recognizable flowers. Yet the sight of them growing wild in their native habitats may surprise many. For these sophisticated flowers originated in some of Earth’s most rugged environs. What many view as genteel garden flowers are actually tough survivors that evolved to cling to desert mountain ridges and thrive on barren windswept steppes.

An intriguing website tulipsinthewild.com offers a rare glimpse of tulip species photographed in their harsh native habitats. The site, created by the Amsterdam Tulip Museum and Colorblends.com of Bridgeport, Conn., showcases the work of five Dutch tulip enthusiasts who traveled to remote regions of the world on a twenty-year quest to find and photograph tulip species in the wild. Along the way, these modern-day botanical explorers braved threats from extreme weather and terrain, armed gangsters, wild animals and more.

The expeditions began in the mid-1990s when Dutch bulb expert Eric Breed and his friend, tulip and lily hybridizer Arie Peterse, treated their wives to a spring vacation in Crete, the mountainous Mediterranean island known for its beach resorts. What they didn’t play up was that Crete is also the only place in the world where a certain rare tulip species might be found.

Tulip Hunters in the Wild

On Crete the two men left their wives to enjoy the beach and set off to explore the island by Jeep and on foot. Along narrow dirt tracks, up rugged mountainsides, they quizzed shepherds and farmers about colorful wild flowers blooming in remote places. Finally, outside a tavern near the mountain village of Spili, a group of men offered a response that surprised and excited them. “Some years this flower blooms, some years it doesn’t,” they said. “This year it blooms. You want to see it? Fine. But first we drink raki!”

A short time later, six shots of the high-octane home brew fueled non-drinkers Eric and Arie in pursuit of their quarry. The instructions were simple: cross the stone bridge, follow the creek upstream to a waterfall, search for a fence with a painted sign of a black turkey in front of a steep slope. Start climbing. They did, and there it was: Tulipa cretica, with its soft pink-white flowers blooming in clusters.

They were hooked and quickly planned new explorations to find and photograph rare tulips in the wild. Soon fellow tulip adventurers, Sjaak de Groot, Willem Lemmers, and Marijn van den Brink joined the group. Over the next two decades, the participants on any given trip varied as they launched holiday expeditions to the mountainous regions of Central Asia, the Mideast and China.

Led by local guides, the hunters explored remote ranges of the Himalayan, Caucasus, Tien Shan, Elburz and Pamir mountains of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. In the former Soviet republics, Vladimir Kolbintsjev joined as trusted friend and guide. Their carefully planned treks relied on sturdy mountain pack horses to traverse exposed steppes, slick glaciers, and narrow mountain paths with precipitous drops. They skirted big cats, bears, wild boars and nervous military patrols.

In a border incident near Chechyna, it was gangsters meet galanthus when Eric and Ari were present at a tense face-off between a World Wildlife Federation representative and a local mafia-type chief. While the WWF rep negotiated to end trafficking in wild-collected galanthus, also called snowdrops, multilingual Eric and Arie, seeking to ease the mood, warily chatted with the gun-toting thugs who blocked the exit door.

A Treasure Trove of Precious Photographs
Their adventures resulted in a trove of dramatic photographs that are viewable online. The tulipsinthewild.com site features an interactive map that leads to the tulip images that were captured there. The site offers more than forty images, each with Eric’s brief description of the flower and where it was found. The website is adapted from a booklet created by Colorblends that is available as a gift to visitors of the Amsterdam Tulip Museum while supplies last.