Spring in the Netherlands: the tulip mania, old and new

Finally, it is spring in the Netherlands. The trees are in bloom, lambs are being born as we speak and those born in the past week are already gambolling in the meadows; people are out enjoying walks, riding their bikes or filling the café terraces in the cities.

Tulip field in the Northeast Polder in Flevoland (The Netherlands)

Just like everywhere else on this planet, spring is the season when everything seems to come back to life, but here in the Netherlands life seems to burst out with all the colours of the rainbow and more: it is the tulip season.

The story of a break-in and the start of the tulip rage

Even though not a flower native to these shores, the tulip is today considered a symbol of the Netherlands since the country is one of the main exporters of tulips and tulip bulbs in the world.

Brought over from the mountainous regions of central Asia to Western Europe by Turkish traders, history tells us that a Flemish botanist named Carolus Clusius, keen on studying these mysterious bulbs, planted a few of them in the botanical garden of the University of Leiden. One night, anonymous hands stole the precious bulbs from the garden and from then on, they spread rapidly across the country and the tulip rage began.

Back in the early 1600s people were eager to pay any price to own just one tulip bulb – the rarer the resulting flower, the more expensive the bulb was, for it was then not yet known that the more spectacular varieties of tulips with the brighter colours and with flame-patterned petals were actually the result of an infection caused by a virus.

The fascination with the tulip reached such magnitude, that the prices kept going up and up until a single bulb would fetch the same amount of guilders as an entire row of houses in Amsterdam. People were so eager to collect them that even contracts began to be drawn, sold and bought for bulbs that were still buried in the ground and whose flowers nobody had yet seen.

a tulip variety with frilled and flame-patterned petals like this, would fetch in the 16th century the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of euros today

The speculation wave around the tulip bulb trade reached its highest point in the year 1637 when it became evident that the “florists” –as the tulip traders were known- were selling an enormous amount of bulbs that they did not really possess to buyers who did not really have the money to pay for them. The tulip contracts were then declared null and void, tulip traders went bankrupt and the market collapsed causing deep poverty across the country.

The tulip mania today

Although the insanity and the speculation around the bulb trade lasted a few years, the tulip remained important for The Netherlands. Thanks to the good acclimatization of the plant to the Dutch soil, tulip production kept growing and more and more varieties were obtained. Today, approximately 3 billion tulip bulbs are produced every year, mostly for the foreign market, making The Netherlands the main exporter of commercially sold tulip plants in the world.

The largest cultivated area in the country is located in Noordoostpolder (the Northeast Polder) in the province of Flevoland with approximately 2000 hectares of colourful beauty, while the most visited areas are the fields along the dunes of the province of South Holland and the West-Frisian polders.

During the two weeks in the spring when the tulips are in full bloom, hundreds of people follow the tulip trail across The Netherlands to photograph and admire the flowers for which the country is well known around the world; some do it by car, others follow bicycle routes especially designed by tourist offices, nature protection and cycling groups or clubs.

Tulip field near Bant, in the Northeast polder (Flevoland)

Keukenhof (Lisse)

Traditionally, every year in the spring The Netherlands opens the biggest and most important bulb flower park in the world: Keukenhof. The park covers an area of 32 hectares exhibiting approximately 4.5 million tulips of at least 100 different varieties.

Besides a total of 15 km of footpaths along which to wander about admiring the beautiful flower display, in Keukenhof visitors can also enjoy indoor flower shows where growers, breeders and botanical artists do their best to offer changing exhibitions of the highest quality set up in the different pavilions in the park.

Keukenhof Park is located in Lisse, about 35 km from Amsterdam and can be reached easily by car or by public transport. In 2012 the park will be open until Sun. 20 May. All the information to plan a visit to Keukenhof as well as a list of all the activities and a map of the park can be found on the Keukenhof website

Keukenhof Park in Lisse is one of the most photographed places in the world

The Flower Parade

One of the most popular events taking place during the tulip season is the Bloemencorso (Flower Parade) in South and North Holland, usually held in the third week in April. Large floats bearing flower sculptures and luxuriously decorated cars interspersed with marching bands cover a route of 40 km between the towns of Noordwijk in South Holland and Haarlem in North Holland, passing along Keukenhof Park.

Once the caravan of flower sculptures reaches the city of Haarlem, the floats are illuminated in the evening and stay on display there the following day. Thousands of people from all over the world come to Holland to watch this impressive flower procession.

This year the Flower Parade will take place on the weekend of 20-22 April with the procession of floats, cars and bands passing by Keukenhof boulevard on 21 April at around 15:30. On the Bloemencorso website there are more details about the parade in 2012.

A quiet and peaceful corner of Keukenhof Park in Lisse

Hortus Bulborum

Located in Limmer in the province of North Holland, the Hortus Bulborum is a unique garden museum whose main objective is the preservation of spring-flowering historical bulbs. With the largest collection of heirloom bulbs in the world, the museum houses some 4000 types of tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and other species, offering an amazing overview of the production of bulbous flowers through the centuries.

Many of the tulip bulbs stored here are no longer commercially produced and some of their specimens date as far back as the 16th century, like the “Duc van Tol Red and Yellow”, which was registered in 1595.

The Queen of Night or Black Tulip is one of the most admired varieties of tulips today

The professionals at the Hortus Bulborum not only maintain the bulb bank for future generations, but they also work with present day breeders and growers to produce better cultivars for the current bulb flower market.

Whether you are a garden lover or you are interested in rare flower specimens, a visit to the Hortus Bulborum is worthwhile. The garden museum opens only during the spring every year, from 6 April to 16 May. All the information needed to plan a visit can be found here

The long winter is definitely over and if you are living in The Netherlands or if you are here for a visit, chances are that you will witness the spring blossom with an abundance of colours and fragrances – beauty is everywhere and the queen of all this beauty is this part of the world is undoubtedly the tulip.

This is a guest post by Aledys Ver, who is originally from Argentina but now lives in Zwolle, in the Netherlands. Her blog is From Argentina to the Netherlands, for love.

Read more:
Tulip: symbol of abundance, indulgence and Istanbul
From Argentina to the Netherlands
Rotterdam’s open market

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6 Comments

  • What a fascinating history of the tulip! I’ve always admired these flowers for their beauty, but I never knew how Holland became inextricably linked with the tulip. Amazing photos too—thanks for brightening my day. :)

  • Thanks a lot to the people at Pocket Cultures and to Managing Editor Lucy Chatburn in particular, for posting my article! It certainly was a pleasure working with you.

    @Katie,
    You are most welcome!
    You can’t imagine how much all this display of colour is appreciated after our long, dull winters here in the Netherlands. I can assure you that tulips brighten our days too!
    Cheers!

  • Very interesting post, and beautiful photos! I’d heard something about the tulip mania before so good to read more about it. And thanks again Aledys, it was a pleasure working with you as well.

    We were in Istanbul yesterday and the tulip season is in full swing there as well.

  • Thank you for the lovely article and photographs about the tulips and the places I can go to enjoy these colorful flowers. Such beauty!

  • What a marvellous post with splendid photos Aledys! I read before that tulips were not native to Holland, but they seem to like the climate and the soil! These colourful fields are one of the iconic images of Holland!

  • AledysVer

    Thanks, Emilygv and deebee for your comments!

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