It all began in the 17th century—Holland’s Golden Age—when wealthy families lived in canal-side mansions and draped themselves in velvet, silk and pearls. Not content with ornamenting their homes and bodies with gems and fabrics, they planted glorious gardens filled with tulips, reflecting Dutchies’ affinity for bold color and organic design.
Tulip mania spread, resulting in ornate displays and new varieties of the flower that quickly became synonymous with the Netherlands. As Europe laughed, prices rose to stratospheric levels. A single tulip became worth its weight in gold and might be traded for a house, orchard, mill or even a dowry.
The Bloom’s Off the Tulip
The tulip mania bubble burst in 1637, when merchants began to traffic in tulips, leading to rampant debt and corruption. Inevitably, prices fell and the market crashed. But Holland’s love affair with tulips continued, as Dutchies began to grow the flower for joy rather than profit. Considered the first recorded speculative bubble, “tulip mania” is now a metaphor for any massive economic bubble. British journalist Charles Mackay popularized the tulip crash in his 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
Fast forward to the 21st century and Holland still provides most of Europe, North America and South America with tulips, hyacinths, carnations, anemones, ranunculuses, camelias, primroses and other flowers. Within its borders, muddy bogs transform into carpets of fluorescent green in March, when the first blooms sprout. By mid-April, nearly all of Holland is swathed in red, pink, purple, orange and yellow blooms, like something out of The Wizard of Oz.
You can visit the manicured rows on your own, cycling through fields between Haarlem and Sassenheim, just north of Leiden. The area encompasses Lisse, a small village about 30 miles southwest of Amsterdam where one of the world’s most spectacular floral displays has enchanted 800,000+ spring visitors annually for 60 years: Keukenhof.
Once part of Teylingen Castle, Keukenhof (literally, “kitchen courtyard”) was an area of untamed woods and dunes that served as hunting grounds for the castle kitchen of Jacoba van Beieren in the 15th century. Landscape architects Jan David Zocher and his son Louis (the team behind Amsterdam’s beloved Vondelpark) redesigned the grounds in 1857. In 1949, the Mayor of Lisse joined with local growers to organize Keukenhof’s first exhibition, which soon developed into an annual event showcasing the Dutch floricultural industry.
The World’s Most Dazzling Flower Garden
Covering nearly 80 acres, Keukenhof features expansive flower fields and gardens planted in intricate color patterns, plus dozens of flower, plant and gardening shows, horticultural displays and works of art.
The annual attraction is an easy day trip from Amsterdam. Take the train from Central Station to Leiden, where bus 54 runs directly to the park. Keukenhof also is easily accessible from Schiphol Airport by bus 58. If you want to spend a few more euros, travel by coach on an organized day trip from Amsterdam, easily booked from numerous companies. If you’re driving, there’s plenty of parking at the attraction.
However you get there, plan to spend at least two hours at Keukenhof, open daily from March 20–May 18, 2014. This year’s theme is “Holland” from its traditional beginnings to modern times. A flower mosaic designed with 60,000 tulips and grape hyacinths depicting Amsterdam’s canals features a mega-size tulip symbolizing the mania of the Golden Age.
Visit in March or early April when crowds are sparse and fragrant hyacinths, as well as orchids in an indoor pavilion, perfume the air. Come in May for warmer weather and more flamboyant outdoor displays. Whatever you do, don’t forget your camera, as Keukenhof is paradise for photographers as well as garden enthusiasts.