Keukenhof & Flowers

Ah, the Netherlands in March, April and May–a time for flower lovers!

Farmers grow bulbs of many kinds during this time of year. The fields sprout ribbons of rich colour that paint the sandy soil in fragrant rainbows. In planters on bridges and along the roadside, Dutch cities are adorned with blooms like crocus, daffodil, and the national flower…the tulip! To see it all in a masterful landscape setting, join the millions of visitors to the Keukenhof.

TIP: Plan Your Keukenhof Visit

We get a lot of requests to take people to the Keukenhof, but we believe the best way to enjoy its gardens is to make use of their handy public transportation + Keukenhof entry ticket deal. Simply click here to buy your ticket before you go! It entitles you to hopping on regularly running Bus 197 from one of two convenient stops in the centre of Amsterdam: Leidseplein (in front of Hotel Americain as mapped here) or Museumplein (a grassy field between the Rijksmuseum and the Concertgebouw. Find the bus stop on the side of the Concertgebouw mapped here). Bus 197 then arrives at Schiphol Airport, where you hop onto the Keukenhof Express bus to the gardens! More details can be found here.

Annual Flower Parade

Usually the first Saturday in May, the annual Flower Parade runs 42 km from Noordwijk to Haarlem from 09:30 – 21:00. Check out the parade route by clicking here, running along the famous dune and bulb region. People flock to see the flowery floats and decorated cars. Around 3.30p.m. the Flower Parade passes the Keukenhof. You can use the same transportation option above to get there that day.

 

You can choose to join the crowds as they gather at the Keukenhof to see the parade (seats and views are limited) go by, or use public transport to get to the smaller towns for a local’s view of all the flowers going by. On Sunday you can admire the all the work put into the Flower Parade in Haarlem, where the floats remain on view until 17:00.

Flower Fever in Holland: Tulip Mania History

 

Tulips are well known for their association with Dutch culture. In fact, Holland is the world’s main producer of commercially sold tulip bulbs, producing as many as 3 billion plants every year. With that in mind you may be surprised to learn that tulips are not a native of Holland and are in fact indigenous to the mountainous regions of Northern Africa and Southern Europe. It’s because of this contrasting habitat that tulips have developed the need for a period of cold dormancy and why, in northernEurope, they must be planted before our winter season starts otherwise they cannot initiate flowering.

Over a thousand years ago, Turkish entrepreneurs had begun cultivating wild tulips that grew in the Persian region, and traded them throughout the Ottoman Empire. During this that time the Great Mogul Baber counted thirty-three different species in the area of Kabul alone. So how is it then, that although originating from a hot, dry mountainous environment, tulips manage to thrive in Holland.

At a first glance the Dutch landscape seems at odds with such an environmentally specific crop with is almost uniquely characteristic landscape. It’s at, and in many areas below, sea level, it’s extremely flat and the winters are particularly wet. The reason why they do so well in Holland is because of their land reclamation policy. By introducing an effective drainage system based on the Archimedes screw and powered by windmills, they inadvertently created a soil that kept the bulbs in an almost perfect and constant environment..

Between 1634 and 1637, the early enthusiasm for the new flowers triggered a speculative frenzy now known as the tulip mania and tulip bulbs were then considered a form of currency just like the California Gold Rush. People abandoned jobs, businesses, wives, homes and lovers, all just to become tulip growers.

Records show one Dutchman who paid thirty-six bushels of wheat, seventy-two of rice, four oxen, twelve sheep, eight pigs, two barrels of wine and four of beer, two tons of butter, a thousands pounds of cheese, a bed, clothes, and a silver cup, just for a single Viceroy bulb!

Tulip mania

It was during the Dutch ‘Golden Period’ when tulip bulbs were treated like a form of currency, and just like the California gold rush, people abandoned jobs, businesses, wives, and homes, all to become tulip growers.
.
Records during this period show that one Dutchman got completely carried away with one investment. This ‘up and coming’ bulb speculator managed to procure himself a rather special variety that cost him its weight in gold. Soon after, he found out that there was a second, identical specimen that was owned by a local cobbler. He approached and then bought the cobbler’s bulb, and in an apparent fit of madness crushed it. Perhaps he was sane after all as he believed that by doing so he would markedly increase the value of his first bulb. This proves that money does do strange things to people.

Dutch history is littered with such stories, although these are perhaps the most extreme. But what it does do is help us to understand how much the Dutch – as well as other European races -held the tulip in high esteem. Owning and flaunting rare specimens was a reflection of your wealth and standing within society. Up until this point contemporary tulips, although bold in colour, were only ever a single colour, ie if they were red then they would be a block of red colouration, if they were yellow then they would be a block of yellow colouration. The change came about with the introduction of the ‘broken’ tulip – this meant that the tulips lock on its single bold colour was broken allowing unique colour variations never seen before. We already know that tulips were very popular right across Northern Europe so when these rare and yet incredibly beautiful new strains arrived, the market for them was already waiting. It’s no wonder that these stunning bulbs were so sought after and commanded such extraordinary prices.
Of course when you look around today’s garden retailers you’ll find that tulip bulbs only cost a few pounds per pack, but the question is this. Are you still able to by those old varieties that took Holland – if not Europe – by storm over 250 years ago, but now for a fraction of their original price?

.The answer is yes and no, and maybe with a little bit of research thrown in. Specimens such as the famous ‘Viceroy’ and ‘Semper Augustus’ have unfortunately disappeared. As too have the legendary ‘Rembrandt’ varieties, so called because of the abundance of tulips in famous Dutch Master paintings in this era; though strangely tulips were not a prominent theme in Rembrandt’s own work. So how is it that such beloved varieties have become all but lost to us during the course of history when other cultivars from this period are still readily available? The answer is hidden in front of eyes and its all down to the secret of their broken colours.

.During the eighteenth century broken colours, as far as the breeders were concerned were in the hands of god, but with today’s modern techniques for genetic manipulation the answers have been discovered. It turns out that these once most highly prised of plants had gained their delicately feathered patterns from an infection known as the Tulip Breaking Virus or TuBV. This form of the mosaic virus is carried by the green peach aphid, Myzus persicae which passed on the infection every time it fed on a new tulip – although the virus did not break the colour in white or yellow bulbs. This was a common pest in European gardens during the seventeenth century, and while it did indeed produces some fantastic and colourful flowers it also weakened them, eventually killing them. Today plants holding the virus are banned and nurseries finding infected stock will destroy them on sight. Any varieties bought today that display a similar colouration to these old favourites are not virus infected plants. Their colouration is in fact the result of a natural change in the upper and lower layers of pigment in the petals. But it wasn’t just broken tulips that were popular during this period of horticultural history.

The Viceroy and Semper augustus

Two of the greatest names of the Tulip mania period were the ‘the Viceroy’, and the ‘Semper augustus’ and these were verypopular with the old Dutch Masters. The Semper Augustus was a red tulip patterned with intricate white striations while the similar Viceroy was red mixed with yellow striations. Perhaps the most famous of these was the 1614 masterpiece ‘Flowers in a Glass Vase’ by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder as these featured both of these sought after bulbs. The original (see above) is currently in the National Gallery, London. At its peak, the Viceroy bulb cost between 3000 and 4200 florins depending on the size of the bulb. To put this into context, a contemporary skilled craftsman would have earned about 150 florins a year. In 1633, one Semper Augustus bulb was said to have sold for 5,500 guilders, and in 1637, just before the crash, a price of 10,000 guilders was asked. In those days, such an exorbitant amount of money would have purchased a grand house on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam. Below is a transcript of contemporary dialogue between Waermondt and Gaergoedt discussing the prices of tulips. It’s from ‘The Continuation of the Rise and Decline of Flora (1637)’. Courtesy of penelope.uchicago.edu

Waermondt: I have often wanted to ask you what kind of flower is the Semper Augustus of which I have heard so much?

Gaergoedt: That it is a beautiful flower; one can but see it at the homes of only two people, one in Amsterdam from which it comes, and also here [Haarlem] at the home of one who will not sell for any money; so they are in close hands.

Waermondt: At how much is such a flower estimated?

Gaergoedt: Who shall say? But I will tell you what I have heard about it: about three years ago, it was sold for 2,000 gld, transferred at once at the Bank, with the restriction that the buyer could not sell or alienate it without the consent of him from whom he bought it.
Waermondt: So they might have been worth this winter, say, 3,000 gld.
Gaergoedt: Yes, even 6,000, and possibly more, even if it be a plant of only 200 aces.
Waermondt: The flowers greatly surpass gold and silver.
Gaergoedt: You may say gold and silver, yes, all the pearls and costly stones.
Waermondt: It is true, if you consider their beauty when in existence and take into account by whom the trade is run. But not when you look at their perishability, and consider by whom silver and gold, pearls and stone, and artistic works are esteemed; because the latter are esteemed by great people, the former by common folk. Not only did this period bring great wealth to Dutch merchants it also brought with it financial speculation. Unfortunately it also created the first financial bubble when, after dramatically falling from its peak prices, tulip bulb values dropped by over 95%.

Some of these beautiful 17th century bulbs are still in existence today, available to buy for only a few pounds at your local plant retailer. But what about the almost mythical Semper August and Viceroy bulbs, are they still around?

Unfortunately their extraordinary beauty arose from a viral infection which ‘breaks’ the single block of colour normally borne on tulips, adding a stunning striation of white or yellow coloured strips. As beautiful as this effect is, there is a terrible down side due to the harmful effects of the virus. It is severely detrimental to the health of the bulb, reducing its vigour, and making it difficult to propagate.

Eventually the bulb has no strength left to flower eventually withering to nothing, and ending the genetic line. It’s for this reason alone that the famous, colour broken Semper August and Viceroy bulbs no longer exist.

Of course you can buy modern replicas of these historic tulips which have been specifically bred to be similar in colour and pattern but without the destructive viral side effects. They are not as sublime as the originals but that are at least able to give a hint of what the Dutch speculators went overboard for. Varieties to look out for are from the Rembrant and Viridiflora ranges.

If you want to try and get hold of stock that contains the tulip breaking virus then you may be out of luck as in most countries – including our own – it is illegal to sell bulb material containing the tulip breaking virus. However a little bit of work may be able to turn something up at the The Wakefield Tulip Society, in England, Hortus Bulbum in Holland and the Old House Gardens nursery in the USA. Unfortunately there are no promises, but I will offer good luck and good hunting.

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