The world’s largest flower garden opened this year on March 20 in Lisse, about 45 minutes from Amsterdam by public transport. Which leaves nearly a month for you to view seven million tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, orchids, roses, carnations, irises, lilies and other spring flowers in bloom at Keukenhof, now in its 66th season.
Translated literally as “kitchen garden,” the popular attraction has roots in the 15th century, when Countess Jacqueline of Bavaria foraged for herbs, fruit and nuts in the woods for use in the kitchen at Teylingen Castle. Keukenhof Castle was built in 1641 and its gardens redesigned in 1857, laying the foundation for the stunning seasonal display that now attracts some 800,000 visitors over just eight weeks each year.
From the Ottoman Empire to Holland
Before landing in Holland, the tulip traveled from the western Himalayas to Persia, China and Turkey, where it became a cherished flower in the Ottoman Empire. Sultans hosted spring tulip parties, and tulips bearing extraordinary colors and patterns appeared in illustrated books and on tiles and other household items. When Dutch trading with Constantinople increased in the 16th century, the tulip was introduced to Holland, where it flourished and soon became a national symbol.
In 1592, Carolus Clusius wrote the first major book on tulips, fueling the flower’s popularity, as well as stealthy raids of Clusius’ garden. Boldly colored, flame-patterned tulips were favorites in the Netherlands. In 1931, botanists uncovered the scientific reason for the flame-like patterns: a non-fatal virus called mosaic, transferred by aphids, that caused a uniform-colored flower to develop erratic “flames” of color on its petals. The varied patterns increased the rarity of an already beloved flower that was sold at a premium in the Dutch Golden Age.
Golden Age Tulip Mania
As demand outstripped production, people began using tulips as money and speculation became rampant. By the mid-17th century, the flower was so coveted, it created Tulip Mania, widely considered the world’s first recorded economic bubble, when a single tulip bulb garnered more than a thousand Dutch guilders—an astronomic sum at the time. At the peak of Tulip Mania, a single bulb sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman.
As the flower’s popularity grew in Holland, prices skyrocketed until the tulip market crashed in 1637. Tulip Mania now metaphorically refers to any large economic bubble, when the price of an asset wildly exceeds its intrinsic value. Despite the crash, the tulip’s popularity in the Netherlands continues to this day, making it the distinctive icon of Holland throughout the world.
Keukenhof Honors Van Gogh
What started as a platform for Dutch tulip developers opened to the public in 1950. This year, 125 years after the birth of Vincent Van Gogh, Keukenhof celebrates the iconic artist in numerous flower shows and a new Selfie Garden inspired by Van Gogh’s self-portraits. A spectacular flower plateau in Van Gogh’s likeness, comprised of tulips and grape hyacinths in many different hues, blooms next to Rembrandt and Jan Steen in the Walk of Fame at Keukenhof 2015. Also on display are more than a hundred thousand tulips in the Willem-Alexander pavilion and historic tulip garden, as well as exhibitions about tulip history, 17th century Tulip Mania, tulip myths and modern tulip cultivation.
Today the Netherlands is the world’s largest producer of tulip bulbs, exporting 4.2 billion bulbs annually. Approximately half goes abroad; the remainder stays in the Netherlands, mainly for flowering in winter as cut flowers. Almost 2,000 different tulip varieties are cultivated commercially; some 100 new ones are added each year.