The Dutch climate provides near-perfect conditions for growing spring-flowering bulbs, with its proximity to the sea, its moderate winters and its long, cool spring season with almost continuous rainfall. In addition, the soil in the western part of the country, where most of these bulbs are grown, is almost pure sand amended with organic compost, which provides a well-drained growing field and is easy to dig in for harvesting the bulbs.
Introduced by a French botanist, Charles de l'Ecluse, tulips - long cultivated in Turkey - came to Holland about 400 years ago, and the cultivation of this plant centered on the city of Haarlem initially. By the 1620s Tulipomania was in full swing and having tulips in one's garden was considered a status symbol equivalent with owning a Ferrari today..... For seventy years this rage spread through the low countries, and a single tulip bulb could be traded for astronomical sums. There is a documented trade of one Viceroy Tulip bulb for: Two lasts of wheat, four lasts of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, twelve fat sheep, two Hogsheads of wine, four tuns of beer , two tuns of butter, one thousand lbs. of cheese, a complete bed, a suit of clothes and a silver drinking-cup.......For a flower that is not particularly striking, in a country that is known for its frugal people, this is extraordinary and many books have been written about what could have caused this ‘fad'.
With the increased demand special markets were founded for the trading of bulbs in the 1630's and gambling and speculation on the value of the bulbs became commonplace. Everyone imagined this mania would last forever, and would make every citizen of The Netherlands a rich man! People sold their houses in order to invest in the tulip markets, as a consequence the cost of living became ludicrously high. Eventually the plant became less a piece of vegetation and more an object of speculation and the whole house of cards collapsed, the government had to intervene in order to save many from bankruptcy, but it still took many years before the country recovered from this extraordinary mania.
Trading in tulips today
The Dutch industry dealing in spring flowering bulbs is the largest in the world and produces sixty percent of the commercially grown flowers in the world. In 2002 appr. ten billion flower bulbs were produced in Holland. Most of these are sold through the large bulb auction house in Lisse, a small town which calls itself the heart of the bulb industry, located in the west of the country.
This tiny area, about a quarter of what is already one of the smallest countries in the world, has almost a thousand individual bulb growers, but there is a system in place for cooperative use of machinery and even a rotating system for the land so the use of chemicals can be limited.
Commercial growers quickly remove the flowerheads after blooming, which allows the bulb to use all its stored reserves to grow, making for a bulb that will guarantee solid blooms the following season. A nice sideline are the strings of blooms (comparable to large leis) that are offered for sale in the bulb region which will adorn the front of tourists' cars for a few days.
A great number of new hybrids are being developed each year and some varieties like the Parrot Tulip are much sought after.
Once the foliage has died back naturally, appr. two months after the plants are ‘beheaded', the bulbs are harvested, dried, their outer layers are peeled off (often still done by hand) and graded by size. They will then be put into storage where the bulbs are exposed to a varying range of temperatures, depending on the country to which they will be exported and the time they will be required to flower: fooling Mother Nature!!
The United States is the largest customer of the Dutch bulb industry, followed by Japan.
The Bulb Fields
The focal point of any flowering bulb tour is the garden known as ‘Keukenhof'. This is a 60 acre park where all the bulb growers plant display gardens each spring. There are around six million tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and other unusual bulbs planted amidst towering trees, flowering shrubs, ponds, sculptures and fountains. It is an exquisite display of natural beauty combined with human artistry. The multitude of colors coupled with the wonderful fragrances makes this a not-to-be-missed stop on any tour of the low countries in the spring. You do have to time it right: they are only open April and May. With river cruises and bus tours in abundance, which will also take you through the commercial growing fields, this should provide you with a lifetime experience.