A disarming, captivating history of the tulip—a byzantine story rich in subtexts, from Pavord, gardening correspondent for the Independent in England (The Flowering Year, not reviewed, etc.). “What is this Toolip? A well complexion’d stink, an ill favour wrapt up in pleasant colours,” muttered a contemptuous English gardener a few centuries back. He stood pretty much alone, as Pavord makes delightfully evident, for long before their introduction into western Europe during the 16th century, tulips were the hottest floral ticket around. Pavord details the background of the tulip, which is as flamboyant as the bloom itself: It is wild to a swath that cuts from Istanbul to Samarkand to Tienshan; it is feathered or flamed, nipped or spidery; a shape-shifter, it is drab one year, then wildly sexy the next, flushed with satiny green. The flower was an Ottoman fixation, an ever-present motif from common tile work to Suleyman’s armor; it spawned floral societies—and poetry, artwork, and debate—300 years before the Dutch laid eyes on it. And tulips instantly besotted western Europe, arriving just in time to cash in on the Age of Curiosities, when the rare became stylish overnight. Pavord charts (and illustrates with 150 color plates) its rise to fame in France, England, Belgium, and the Netherlands; she traces the flower’s appearance in paintings, literature, and botanical tracts; discusses how it commanded absurd prices and became an object of satire; details the tulip’s abrupt fall from grace, only to be rescued from the aristocratic scrap heap by hobby florists. Clearly, Pavord is smitten herself. Like the best of monomaniacs, she engages readers with her obsession and knows how to apply tongue to cheek: Any tulip worth inspection has “the need for a good shape and a good bottom.” This floral portrait is alive with wonder; even the concluding catalogue raisonnÇ of species is a work of passion.