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Our Beautiful Planet

May 4, 2017

What do 7 million tulips look like? For two months a year in spring, Keukenhof garden, outside of Amsterdam in Holland provides the answer. It is a wonder of the world.

DW eco@africa - Tulip fields near Keukenhof Gardens, The Netherland
Arial view of tulip fields surrounding Keukenhof gardens, April 2017Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Dejong

Tulips have become an icon in the Netherlands. The country is now the world’s largest producer of the flowers, generating an astounding 4.2 billion bulbs each year.

Tulips are spring-blooming perennials and come in a multitude of sizes, shapes and colors. They usually have few leaves, one flower per stem and are often waxy in appearance. Today around 2,000 different varieties are cultivated, with about 100 new cultivars added each year.

Though strongly associated with Holland, the tulip is really a stranger in western Europe. Technically part of the lily family, tulips are originally from Eurasia.

Cultivation of the flowers probably began around the 10th century in Persia. A century later they were brought to Turkey where they experienced their first big boom as highly-prized ornaments and were often depicted in art and poetry.

DW eco@africa - Tulips in Keukenhof Gardens
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Muncke


The long road to Holland

But how did these showy flowers end up in the Netherlands? No one knows for sure when or who brought the very first bulbs to Europe. But with the increase of international Dutch trading, new parts of the world were brought into contact.  

What is known is that in 1573, Carolus Clusius planted tulips in the botanical garden in Vienna. In 1592, he published the first major scientific work on these plants, eternally cementing his connection with the flower. 

Soon afterwards Clusius went to Leiden University, 40 kilometers (25 miles) outside of Amsterdam, and planted some of his tulip bulbs there in late 1593, which bloomed the following spring. Thus, 1594 is considered the year when the tulip came to Holland. Thereafter he was largely credited with the spread of tulips across Europe on a large scale.

DW eco@africa - Tulips
Tulips come in many sizes and colorsImage: Damun Pournemati

Before long the fascination with the flower spread like wildfire. But since reproduction of bulbs is a slow process, demand soon outweighed supply. Thus "tulip mania" was born and reached its high point between 1634 and 1637. Suddenly astronomical prices were paid for these status symbols and gardeners were robbed across the country. Since these heady days prices have come down, but the love for tulips has not wilted and the flower is now a quintessential emblem of the nation

Keukenhof garden

The original Keukenhof, which means "kitchen garden," dates back to the 15th century. Keukenhof Castle was built in 1641, and over the centuries the estate passed through many hands. In 1857, Jan David Zocher and his son, Louis Paul, who also created Amsterdam's Vondelpark, redesigned the castle park in the informal English landscape style. It is this park that forms the backbone of Keukenhof today.

The Keukenhof garden show was started in 1950 by a group of 20 bulb producers. They wanted an appropriate place to display their wares. Now in its 87th year, the show attracts around one million visitors even though it is only open for two months a year (March 23 to May 2, 2017).

The park covers 32 hectares (79 acres). Every year 100 exhibitors supply the seven million various bulbs to be planted. And each year the planting is redesigned to keep visitors coming back. It is a wonder of nature mixed with man’s fascination for a widely-traveled flower.

Flower power at Keukenhof

Do you have a picture of a beautiful landscape or something amazing in nature that you want to share with our readers? If so, you can send it to us using the upload tool on our website, or by emailing us at ecoafrica@dw.com. We look forward to hearing from you.