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In the Netherlands province of Holland in April and early May, almost every field in is covered in brightly coloured flowers. These are the bulb flowers most often associated with spring. There are deep blue hyacinths, white and golden yellow daffodils and narcissi, but mostly brash, bold and colourful tulips.
Tulips come in a wide range of colours. They can be the purest white through yellow, orange and red to the deepest purple ... sometimes almost black. ‘Broken’ tulips are bi-coloured, usually with a streak of a contrasting hue. ‘Self-coloured’ varieties are of one solid colour.
There’s no such thing as a true blue tulip, or a pure black one. It’s said, however, that fabulous rewards await the grower who can produce one. Botanists and horticulturists say it can’t be done. But, in a country two-fifths of which has been reclaimed from the sea, the word "impossible" isn’t used very often!
Tulips originally came from Turkey and were first mentioned by a European in 1551. The Austrian ambassador to Turkey, Ogier de Busbecq, wrote of seeing the flowers and sent some seeds home. In 1562, Dutch merchants brought large quantities of tulip bulbs to the Netherlands. Since then, the Dutch have been foremost in growing and trading in tulips, and the development of new varieties for sale to gardeners.
They found that although tulips will grow in almost any soil, their flat, fertile, well-watered homeland provided almost ideal conditions. The tulips flourished, and their vivid colours found universal favour almost immediately.
Most of the bulb-fields lie along the western coastal strip, between Noordwijk and Haarlem, to the west of Amsterdam, and many people take advantage of the coach tours which are readily available from most European countries during the flowering season.
The bulb fields are at their very best for only a few days each year. Growers normally let the blooms flower for just long enough to ensure that they are the correct colour. Then, they cut the heads off, so that the plant puts all its energies back into the bulb, and it’s not uncommon to see piles of discarded flower heads just left by the roadside.
However, this isn’t the practice at the flower nurseries in the area. Here they sell bulbs to both the wholesale and retail trade. There are excellent displays here throughout the spring, for the grower can advance, delay and prolong the flowering period. This is where to go to send some bulbs home.
The best display of all can be seen at Keukenhof Gardens, in the town of Lisse, a 45-minute drive or hourlong train ride south of Amsterdam. Open for just two months each spring, the country's leading bulb-growers bring the best of their flowers here to show to the trade and to the public. They also exhibit any new varieties they may have developed. And bulbs can be ordered for shipment home to family and friends.
The gardens are really the Netherlands in microcosm. An irrigation canal passes close by, and some of the ladies in charge of the food stalls wear the colourful traditional costume. In the newer part of the garden, which was opened in 1999, they have featured a dune landscape, the body of a dyke and a terp (mound), which provides an excellent view of the bulb fields beyond the gardens. And of course there’s a windmill - as emblematic of the Netherlands as the tulip itself!
Under the trees, around the lake with its distinctive fountain ... tulips of every shade imaginable, as well as hyacinth and narcissus, grow all around. For a few short weeks, all is vibrant colour and beauty, even on the dullest day. It’s generally much movement and bustle, too, for Keukenhof is popular with visitors from all over the world. But even when the gardens are at their busiest and their most crowded, there’s usually a tranquil little corner to be found somewhere, to sit down and eat a sandwich.
It’s hard to believe that the tulip was once the subject of such cutthroat trading that many traders were ruined. When the first bulbs arrived in the Netherlands, they were so eagerly sought after that some varieties were traded for vastly inflated prices. By the 1630s, the height of this period, known as the Tulpenwoede (Tulip Mania), it was said that one single bulb of some varieties could provide the dowry for a bride, or the price of a canal-side house in Amsterdam.
Initially, the trade was confined to growers and experts, but after 1633, anyone could deal in tulips. The rapidly rising prices tempted many families to mortgage homes, estates and businesses in order to speculate in the market. Bulbs were often sold and re-sold many times over without ever being dug out of the ground!
But in the spring of 1637, the crash came, and the price of bulbs fell almost overnight. Although the government intervened to regulate the trade, many prominent families were bankrupted.
From that period comes a story that Dutch people still like to tell. A greedy merchant once cheated one of his closest friends in order to obtain some rare and expensive tulip bulbs. Arriving home, he placed his ill-gotten bulbs on the kitchen table, and went to sleep in his chair until his dinner was ready.
When the dinner was served, the first course was a strange-tasting soup ... which his cook had made from the "funny onions" she had found on the kitchen table!
Editor's note: in an unmistakable sign of our times, the UK Guardian newspaper reports that many tulip farmers in Holland are putting up barriers to keep careless selfie-taking tourists from crushing their precious flowers. Details here.