Each spring, a passion for bulbs inflames the Netherlands countryside. Sprawling fields burst into bloom and greet hordes of tourists eager to visit the heart of the bulb growing industry. Travelers are greeted by massive blankets of color — a technicolor patchwork of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths.
I was lucky enough to visit bulb country recently, but not as a tourist admiring the cultivars planted chockablock by the millions. As a writer and member of the seed searching team for Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, I’m tasked with finding the most outlandish and rarest plant gems. The bulbs I seek have exotic origins, historical significance, and unique quirks — characteristics that set them apart from the usual selection offered by big-box stores.
Although the sandy soil of the Netherlands is ideal for growing bulbs, tulips (Tulipa spp.) are native to arid regions of Central Asia, near the modern-day border between Russia and China. The Turks first cultivated wild tulips in the early 11th century. Turkey experienced a tulip fever in the mid-1500s, during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Later that same century, Austrian ambassador and tulip lover Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq introduced the tulip to Western Europe when he collected samples and sent the exotic specimens to famous Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius.
At the time, Clusius was the director of the botanical garden Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, South Holland. (South Holland and North Holland are provinces in the Netherlands.) Clusius planted these curious new flowers with the intention of studying their medicinal purposes, and noted that the introduced bulbs thrived in the local climate and sandy soil. The flowers’ striking beauty enchanted garden visitors, and soon bulbs were being stolen from Clusius’ treasured medicinal garden. The pilfered bulbs quickly multiplied and spread, and the flowers became a coveted ornamental flower around Europe.
“Tulip Mania” in Europe
With incredible variability in color, pattern, shape, and size, the highly adaptable tulip became the subject of experimental breeding. By the 17th century, tulips had become a status symbol among the Dutch aristocracy and inspired famous paintings. Bulb selling and trading skyrocketed into the 1630s in a phenomenon known as “tulip mania.” Bulb prices peaked in 1636 and 1637, when particularly prized varieties were sold for as much as the cost of a home. The passion for tulips coincided with increased wealth throughout the Netherlands based on a thriving maritime trade. Many people participated in growing and selling tulips as the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme, sinking huge amounts of cash into bulbs for breeding. Eventually, insecurity and panic burst the economic bubble surrounding tulip breeding and trading, losing fortunes and destroying livelihoods across the region.
Despite the collapse of tulip mania, the Dutch have continued to adore the tulip. The flower is one of the Netherlands’ national symbols, and the North and South Holland provinces have long been considered the center of the bulb industry. Approximately 90 percent of the world’s tulips are grown in this small country, with production concentrated in a few coastal areas. Every year, an average of 4 billion tulips are grown in the Netherlands.
The Bollenstreek Today
A visit to Holland’s Bollenstreek, or “bulb region,” wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Keukenhof. The entire Bollenstreek is a flat strip of land between North and South Holland filled with blankets of color and breathtaking views, and Keukenhof is one of the most striking locations in the region. The world’s largest spring bulb garden, Keukenhof is a stunning display of flowers, mainly tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, and lilies. The meticulously manicured garden is located on land once used for hunting and herb gathering in the 15th century. The name Keukenhof translates to “kitchen garden,” as the fruits of this land were once used in the scullery of a nearby castle. In 1950, the land was officially designated as a park to showcase the prowess of Dutch bulb breeding and design. Displaying your bulbs at Keukenhof is an excellent chance to gain exposure for new cultivars, and about 100 different breeders submit their bulbs for exhibition every year. Bulb plantings are artfully arranged to create a whimsical landscape. This innovative layout is much like a living catalog, as many visitors are prospective buyers or avid gardeners looking to stay on top of trends. Head designer Martin Elling, a young and brilliant landscape architect, gave me a tour of the immaculate gardens. Elling leads a small but dedicated garden crew that plants a staggering 7 million bulbs each season. We strolled in the garden for hours, selecting our favorite outlandish cultivars and gleaning innovative design concepts.
While touring elsewhere in the Bollenstreek on a relaxed cycling tour, I happened upon an unusual field with thousands of blooms in myriad colors and shapes. Luckily, I was able to meet the grower of this curious collection. Eric Breed is a collector of exotic and historic bulbs who has trekked the globe in search of wild bulbs. He’s also the author of the book Lost Tulips, which contains many photos of historic tulips. Breed gave me a tour and regaled me with stories of hunting for wild tulips on horseback in Kazakhstan. A dedicated bulb curator, he’s growing an encyclopedia of rare and storied bulbs from the original tulip cultivars that were stolen from Clusius’ garden. Breed inherited a fascination with flowers from his father, and now works to preserve and expand the family collection. I was delighted to have found a like-minded grower so enthusiastic about preserving bulb diversity.
Tulips and daffodils are known for their color, while hyacinths are renowned for both color and scent. Hyacinthus orientalis experienced its own short-lived “hyacinth mania” in the 18th century when the Dutch became enamored of the bulb and bred over 2,000 cultivars. Hyacinths remain a major Dutch crop, and they bloom around the same time as tulips, so visitors often catch both when touring the Netherlands in spring.
Plan Your Visit
Keukenhof is located about 20 miles southwest of Amsterdam and can easily be reached by public transportation. The garden is open daily during the spring bulb bloom season. In 2018, this occurs from March 22 through May 13. Crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, and early tulips are in bloom during the early part of the season, while larger tulips flower later. Keukenhof’s pavilions also feature multiple flower shows. Learn more on the Keukenhof website.
Suffering from tulip mania? Check out these sources of rare and unusual heirloom tulips.
Bio: Shannon McCabe is a gardening writer at Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. She has a background in environmental horticulture and has worked as a market farmer in Rhode Island.