April 27, 2016. As you probably know by now, Matthew and I are landscaping fanatics. We both enjoying grubbing in the dirt and watching the fruits of our labor pop up each spring. Which is why, for his birthday this year, we decided to check out Amsterdam’s famous flower festival at the Keukenhof Gardens. It might sound deadly dull to you, but for a gardener, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event. Think of it as the equivalent of a Rolling Stones fan getting front-row seats to a London concert. It’s that big. So be prepared for my long-winded post extolling the virtues of the experience.
To do justice to such an occasion, we decided to upgrade our hotel expectations. Our first trip to Amsterdam had been hastily planned, and as a result, we’d found only one room available in the whole city. It came at the hefty price tag of $275 per night — the most we’ve ever paid for a hotel. Sadly, it looked like an SRO for vagrants. I’d swear there were remnants of bodily fluids and police tape on the floor from an earlier homicide. At one point, we had to get the manager to evict a drunk homeless guy who’d set up camp in the single bathroom facility shared by the entire floor.
I can’t show you a picture, because it wasn’t a visual I care to preserve. I went to bed every night with my eyes squeezed shut, clicking my heels and repeating “there’s no place like home.” But it just goes to prove two things: procrastinators pay heavily for their tardiness, and photos on Booking.com can be seriously misleading. Luckily, on this second trip we found an incredible bargain (half the price of our previous place) at Hotel Nes — great breakfasts and an adorable attic room with a spectacular view.
After checking in, we decided that we needed a remedial Tulip tutorial to brush up on the basics before boarding our tour bus. So we headed to Amsterdam’s tiny but adorable Tulip Museum. Informative exhibits and great videos, all shoehorned into about 1,500 square feet, managed to succinctly trace the almost farcical history of Tulip Mania. For those of you who haven’t read the tulip chapter in Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, tulip bulbs became a form of currency during the Dutch Golden Age and single-handedly crashed the nation’s economy when speculators finally wised up.
The museum itself takes you through the tulip’s humble beginnings as a mountainside wildflower in the Himalayas, to Turkey where it was cultivated by Ottoman Emperors, to the Netherlands where a canal-side mansion could be purchased with a single bulb, and finally to the modern era where farmers and horticulturalists still make small fortunes crossbreeding and selling new varieties every year. It’s a great primer before viewing the Keukenhof Gardens, plus, the museum also offers a fabulous selection of bulbs and tulip vases for your shopping enjoyment.
Thus educated, we felt adequately prepared for our full-day tulip tour. Normally we’re not big fans of organized tours. We prefer to go at our own pace, rather than being herded like cattle by a woman wielding a collapsed umbrella over her head as a sign of her authority. But since there are so many events connected to the festival — the Keukenhof Garden display, the flower parade, and open houses at bulb fields and farms — we decided a tour was the best way to go without a lot of hassle.
It was the best $200 we’ve ever spent. Not only did we avoid having to rent a car and battle intense traffic on our own, but our small group status (20 people) with Tours & Tickets got us in everywhere ahead of the lines, and included a quick walking tour of Haarlem, entry into the Frans Hals Museum and floral exhibition, and lunch in a bulb farmer’s garden. On top of that, our guide, Aaf, was knowledgeable, funny, unflappable under pressure, and skilled at calming the annoyingly pretentious complainer in our party (there’s always one in every group.)
A half-hour drive brought us into Haarlem and our first stop, the Frans Hals Museum. A master of incredibly lifelike portraits, Hals is famous for capturing the not-so-pretty details of a life well-lived: spider veins, red noses, ruddy cheeks, and all. He frequently used quick impressionist brushstrokes to imply motion –and often that motion involved hoisting a beer. Many of the hard-drinking subjects have a good-humored glint in their eye and look like the kind of down-to-earth folks you’d want to hang out with. But if you’re not into portraits, the museum has a fabulous collection of still lifes, both floral- and food-oriented, as well as decorative objects and furniture from the Dutch Golden Age.
Pictured is Frans Hals’ version of the hard-drinking and smoking, “Peeckelhaering” (Pickled Haring), a comic figure that entertained kids and adults at fairs. His merry tippling allowed him to get away with mocking and making fun of others’ weaknesses, like drinking and smoking too much — note the smokes on the table. (We’d call him a jester today.) Hals went on to paint several versions of this character, one of his favorite subjects.
The “Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard” has that characteristic lifelike trademark of Hals’ work. You feel as if you’ve just interrupted the frat boys at their kegger. And from the mocking looks on their faces, they’re not particularly impressed with you. The Civic Guards were wealthy merchants, bankers, and tradesmen who’d been elected by citizens to protect the city in case of attack. Methinks meetings were mostly an excuse to party. Hals, Rembrandt, and other Dutch Masters painted lots of Civic Guard portraits during their careers.
Check out the impressionistic, almost sloppy brushwork on the ruffs, neckcloths, and sashes of these men. If it weren’t for Hals’ ability to capture their rather drink-addled and dissipated expressions, we might think he’d joined them in several toasts while painting their portrait. (Hals was himself a member of the Guards.)
Frans Hals’ quick brushwork came in handy when painting this portrait of a traveler, who was in a terrible hurry and wanted to take his picture with him. Using a technique called wet-on-wet, Hals completed the entire portrait in just one sitting, with no underlying panel prep work and no overlying varnish. This dude looks quite full of himself, though, doesn’t he? Like he’s trying to impress Hals’ with his oh-so-busy calendar, which won’t allow him to take time for a proper sitting.
I’ll admit I’ve never been a big fan of floral still-life paintings. … until I saw several at the Frans Hals Museum and purchased a book about the genre. If you look closely at this painting by Hans Gillisz Bollongier, you’ll see tiny details like bugs, snails, and fallen petals. Not only do these act like botanical illustrations by documenting species, but they also imply the brevity of life and the wish that time would pass more slowly so we could enjoy the bouquet longer. The images usually also contain flowers that would have never bloomed in the same season, such as the lily and tulip, so it’s a bit like a fantasy bouquet. The top flower is always the priciest; here, it’s the “Semper Augustus” tulip, which could cost as much as a house.
Ditto for food still lifes. It seemed like a really boring subject matter to me, until I learned more about what it represented: food only the rich could afford both to eat and to have painted for them as an advertisement of their wealth. After all, no one back then had cell phones so that they could post photos of (and brag about) their fancy meals on Facebook.
I had to include this classic Dutch tile of “Semper Augustus.” I wonder if the tile cost as much as the actual bulb?
And of course, where else do you store your tulip bulbs worth more than gold? In a locked tulip trunk.
In honor of the flower festival, the museum had invited students from the nearby floral-arranging and glass-blowing schools to create displays scattered throughout the building. Seeing Hals’ realistic portraits of ruff-necked, partying people — all peeping out over lavish bouquets set atop gorgeous 17th-century furniture — seemed wholly appropriate. I felt as if we’d just interrupted a fancy Dutch-costumed dinner party. And me without my crinolines.
Looks like they still have room at the table for us.
I loved this lemony arrangement of yellow-fringed parrot tulips with porcelain fruit scattered across the tabletop.
Check out this gorgeous “nest” vase created by one of the glass-blowing students.
Another spectacular floral display looks like it has stepped right out of a Dutch Master’s painting.
The Dutch copied Chinese porcelain painting techniques, but put their own spin on it by creating these tulip pyramids. Later, the Chinese made cheap copies, which the Dutch East India Company then imported. So it’s kind of like a copy of a copy of a copy. This tulip pyramid is almost as tall as I am. It comes apart in sections for shipping and storage, which makes it easy to pour water into each segment without springing a leak out the openings.
Next on the agenda was a quick walking tour of Haarlem’s core. Aaf gave us a brief history of the city as she escorted us through its major sites. The furbelowed and frilled architectural details of its Market Square, Town Hall, Great Church, Meat Market, and more testify to Haarlem’s heyday, when it was a major port and the tulip capital of the world. By the way, in case you’re wondering, Dutch merchants established its namesake — Harlem, New York — as a fur trading and farming colony.
One of the “little guesthouse” windows held this mustachioed kitty, who apparently has great hopes.
Here, you can see that the Grote Kerk (Great Church) dominates the Grote Markt (Great Market, i.e. Market Square). A funfair fills the marketplace in honor of the flower festival. This square has been the center of Haarlem’s community events for more than 700 years. If you look at Dutch Master paintings of it, you’ll see it hasn’t changed much (except for the Ferris wheel and modern rides, of course.)
Built over a 150-year period (c. 1390 – 1540), the church has an amazing fan-vaulted wooden ceiling rather than a stone one because the townspeople ran out of money. Handel and 10-year-old Mozart both played the magnificent pipe organ, finished in 1738.
The Vleeschhal (literally “Flesh Hall” or Meat Market) has been converted into an art gallery, but at one time, the cellar held ice to keep the meat cold, the ground floor held the butchers’ shops, while the attic held the leatherworker’s guild. Carvings of the heads of sheep and cows crown the windows and door frames.
Many of Haarlem’s buildings still have their original signs over their doors. Most have not only text, but also images describing what they do for folks who couldn’t read. Here, the beer barrel advertises that this establishment was an inn that served from a Toelast (a 600-liter barrel of beer). Architect Lieven de Key, who designed the Vleeschhall, built this inn in 1609.
Another cool sign, this one advertises that the building is a guesthouse for the Barbara Women’s Hospital. Notice the nuns caring for patients lined up in little cubicles along the wall. Many buildings in Amsterdam have these same types of “shop signage.”
Our next stop took us to a bulb farm by route of a short drive through the Dutch countryside. Flatlands stretched out far and wide as we crisscrossed canals and hopscotched between pastures. Before long, we spotted our first bulb fields. Giant patchwork quilts in a range of Crayola colors had us oohing, aahing, and begging the bus driver to pull off so we could snap better pictures. Aaf pointed out places where petals lay thick upon the ground, evidence that, while we love the blossoms, the farmers must lop off the flower heads shortly after blooming to retain the bulbs’ energy.
Sandy, well-drained soil is best for bulb growth because a wet bulb rots. Machines are used to plant rows of tulips late each fall so that they can go through the cold winter dormancy — which is required for a bulb to eventually sprout and bloom.
Tulips can be grown from the seeds produced by their blossoms, but it will take years for a tulip started this way to become big enough to flower. (Plus, the seeds of some hybrids are sterile.) Dividing up a bulb is a much faster way to get a mature plant that is ready to blossom for a customer. So for bulb farmers, the goal is to have tulips spend energy feeding bulbs, not sustaining blossoms that attract pollinators to fertilize the plant and stimulate seed production. That’s why a tulip’s head is cut off soon after a blossom is produced. (In other words, farmers direct how the plant will reproduce, favoring bulbs over seeds.) Note the petals lying on the ground to the right of the mature tulips. While machines chop most of the heads, farmers go in by hand afterwards to pluck any that the machine missed.
In the foreground, you can see the straw that gets tossed over the bulbs after fresh ones are planted each fall. The straw protects the bulbs from frost and prevents water from puddling.
Farmers inspect growing tulips daily for insects and diseases. Just one unchecked diseased plant can wipe out an entire crop and devastate the farmer.
I just had to toss in a photo of this adorable farmer’s house and nursery. It looks like it’s right out of a fairy tale.
Our long-suffering chauffeur eventually pulled up in front of a huge barn, and we all piled out to be greeted by Daan Janze, who owns De Tulperij farm. He walked us through the process of planting and harvesting, proudly pointing out a field of Tang-colored tulips. “One year, I planted a field of red tulips, and when they bloomed, a single orange mutant stood out in the crowd. I nurtured that lone bulb, dividing it season after season, and five years later, I have three huge rows — and a tulip named by me.”
Daan then invited us for a closer inspection of the fields, with the joking admonition, “You’re all Americans? Then you’ll understand this: Don’t step on the plants, or I’ll have to shoot you.” (Yeah, our nation’s gunmania has given us a deservedly bad rep.) Then he bustled us inside from the whipping wind and seated us at a long, farmer’s table for a delicious lunch of soup and sandwiches. Not wanting to miss a chance to purchase some of his incredible bulbs, we gulped down our meal, combed through his catalog, then placed our order before hopping back on the bus. Our final stop for the day? The Keukenhof Gardens, our dream destination.
Rows of orange “mutant” tulips wave to us from inside the bulb barn. Daan has named them “Orange Princeps,” but they are not yet abundant enough to be sold to the general public. A few more years and the crop will be large enough for market.
Daan also offers opportunities to sleep in a field of flowers; this is the porch for a little hard-sided tent that you can rent.
Matthew stands next to one of the canals that keep the sandy soil well drained. Too much water is the enemy of a healthy bulb.
Wonder if Daan needs a scarecrow?
Daan shows us the babies inside a big daffodil bulb ready to be divided. Each of these can be nurtured into a full-sized bulb.
Inside the bulb barn, you can sit to browse through Daan’s catalog. For our condo back in Chicago, we bought a selection of 6 different varieties of purple and white tulips (15 bulbs of each) for $75, which included shipping to the U.S.! Behind the couch are rows of trays used to store harvested bulbs until shipping and planting time. Bulbs are kept at cool, dry temperatures with constantly running fans to prevent mold and rot.
Daan shared with us that while most daffodils and crocuses will come back year after year, tulip and hyacinth hybrids usually peter out by year two or three. Which is why you should really dig them up each year and store them properly — or just buy new ones from Daan. 😉
The bulbs we ordered will be shipped this fall after the August harvest. Daan surprised us with the fact that many of the bulbs we see in U.S nurseries have already been sitting for a year in improper storage at distributor’s warehouses by the time they make it to the store shelves. That’s why you’ll often get a lot of duds or bulbs that fizzle out within a year. Daan recommends ordering direct from the growers to get the healthiest bulbs. “It’s better for you; it’s better for me,” he joked. (As you can see here, Daan knows international importation restrictions and ships all over the world — we put in a pin for Chicago after placing our order.)
To get to the Keukenhof, we had to first fight our way through the long line of cars waiting to enter the parking lot. The police, in their infinite wisdom, had shut down the tour bus entrance to prepare for the flower parade’s passing later that day. The crowd was so thick that it reminded me of Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras Day. Thankfully, flower fans are a bit more well-mannered, so there were no cries of “Throw me some beads, mister! ” or “Show me your boobs!” as we threaded our way through the street-side throngs.
Since we’d lost some time in the traffic, Aaf gave us a quick history lesson and orientation session before turning us loose with our maps to wander for three hours. To recap her tale, the Keukenhof occupies a 15th-century hunting grounds that also once acted as an herb garden for the sister-in-law of Henry VII. (Keukenhof means “kitchen court / garden.”) A series of noble owners had the formal gardens laid out and later formed a charitable foundation, which now rents out 80 acres every year as a living showcase for bulb growers and floral designers. By the way, the Netherlands is the world’s largest exporter of flowers, and the Keukenhof is the world’s largest bulb garden.
Open for only eight weeks each spring, the park is divided into seven sections that get replanted every single year according to a theme — this year’s was the Dutch Golden Age. Three main pavilions host 30 flower and plant shows where more than 100 growers and 300 designers compete for awards that help establish new hybrids and gardening trends. At the end of the short season, the bulbs get dug up and fed to cattle … and in the autumn, the park’s staff of 30 gardeners begins planting another seven million bulbs for the next year’s event.
Since the Keukenhof is an intensely visual spectacle, let’s just get right to the photo galleries, starting with a quick overview of some of the various garden sections. (Be sue to click on the photos for bigger views and captions):
In 1857, to design the parkland surrounding the Keukenhof Castle, Baron and Baroness Van Pallandt hired the Zochers — the famous father-and-son team of landscape architects who designed Vondelpark in Amsterdam. Pictured is their “English Landscape” Garden.
A closeup of the “Spring Meadow” reveals a knee-high field of flowers.
The “Natural Garden” is meant to mimic native woodlands. I love the rusty fern fiddleheads unfurling at the bottom right of the photo.
This year, a special “Delft Garden” was dedicated to the blue-and-white ceramics that have made the city of Delft so famous. The Keukenhof has been hosting a variety of inspirational gardens for the public since 1949, when the first group of 20 growers came up with the idea of an annual flower festival in the park.
A special shade-tolerant but quick-growing grass gets planted beneath the trees each year. I think these elephant-legged tree trunks belong to beeches. As you can clearly tell from my photos, it’s virtually impossible to take a pic without catching at least one of the garden’s 800,000 visitors in it.
Along with the bulb gardens, other themed sections include the Japanese Garden, the Historic Walled Garden, and the Maze.
And for those of you who enjoy tulips as much as I do, take a look at these lovelies to learn a bit of tulip lore:
The Juliana Pavilion featured hundreds of tulip varieties — some of which reached almost hip height on me! Tulip experts and exhibition labels told the story of 17th-century Tulipmania and answered questions about modern tulip cultivation methods.
Matthew mimics what I wanted to do all day — take a bite out of the candy-colored confections. But I shouldn’t make light of the topic. During the winter of 1944-45, the Nazis starved out the Dutch as punishment for the battle of Arnheim. Thousands of people died, and those that survived resorted to eating tulip bulbs for food. The Dutch are the tallest people in the world, except for the generation that suffered the Great Hunger of that winter.
These tulips belong to the largest and most important tulip class — the “Triumps.” They’re a cross between Single Early Tulips and later varieties. They have the classic turban shape, which is where the name “tulip” originates. It’s a Latinized version of the Turkish word “tülbend,” meaning “turban.”
The Turks, who were the first to seriously cultivate tulips, called the flower “Laleh.” When written in Arabic, the word is an anagram of Allah. It is considered the holiest of flowers. This particular Triumph tulip is a hybrid known by the somewhat less respectful name of “Hotpants.”
In Turkey, a gift of a red tulip was a declaration of love; its black center symbolized a heart scorched by passion. This modern Triumph tulip, called “Lasting Love,” would certainly have been well received by the wives in an Ottoman emperor’s harem.
The Viennese ambassador to Turkey was the first to bring the tulip into Western Europe. He gave specimens to Carolus Clusius, the Flemish botanist who created the Leiden Botanical Garden. Clusius set the stage for Dutch tulip bulb cultivation and breeding. This particularly buttery beauty is a Triumph tulip appropriately christened “Yellow Crown” for its unusually torqued petals.
When most people think of Dutch tulips, they picture the flamboyantly flamed variety often called “Rembrandts” for their hand-painted look. (Rembrandt really didn’t paint such striped beauties, but other Dutch masters did.) A blossom with a multi-colored blaze was called a “broken tulip,” and the effect was caused by a virus transmitted by aphids. The disease eventually killed off many of the most famous tulip varieties cultivated by the Dutch in the 17th century. Today, other hybridizing methods are used to create the same streaked effect.
Pictured is a Triumph tulip by the name of “Grand Perfection.” It probably most closely resembles the famous “Semper Augustus” (“Forever Magnificent”) tulip, which commanded the highest prices in the 17th century. According to one source, “Semper Augustus” was worth: “two cartloads of wheat, four cartloads of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat pigs, a dozen fat sheep, four casks of wine, two barrels of beer, two tons of butter, a thousand pounds of cheese, a bed, a silver chalice, several articles of clothing, and a ship to carry everything in.”
Fringed tulips have been bred to be frilly. This cultivar, called “Bastia,” reminds me of neon sea anemones.
Probably one of my favorites, the Fringed tulip “Cummins” looks as if it has crystals of frost collecting on the edge of its petals.
Parrot tulips have all the bells and whistles; they’re streaked, fringed, and ruffled with layers of petals (a property called ‘double-flowering’.) This variety is aptly named “Caribbean Parrot.”
Called “Blushing Lady,” this Triumph tulip is as big as my hand. It reminds me of a magnolia blossom.
And for those of you who love daffodils or the color yellow, check out these eye-popping arrangements as featured in the Oranje Nassau Pavilion, which highlights how flower bulbs can be used in interiors. (The sunny shade helped keep the 2106 “Golden Age” theme going.):
These hand-blown vases perfectly offset the ruffled petals and cheery color of daffodils. Their scientific name “Narcissus” comes from the Greek legend of a young man by the same name, who fell so in love with his own gorgeous reflection while gazing into a river that he tumbled into the water and drowned. The flower was said to have sprung up along the bank where Narcissus sat admiring himself. (Notice that the head of a daffodil is bent downward toward the ground, as if looking for its own reflection.)
Look at the incredible wrapping around the daffodils’ stems. Here’s a flower factoid for you: Daffodil stems ooze a toxic slime that will often kill other flowers in the same vase. To prevent this, cut the stems, then let the daffodils ooze in a glass for a few hours until their sticky sap runs out.
Check out the woven nest of Bear Grass used to create the bouquet holder for this bundle of blossoms. A panel of expert judges awards prizes not only for the best arrangement, but also for the “Best in Breed.”
This one wins the prize for the best French braid I’ve seen in a long time.
Sometimes a simple bowl of daffodils, their stems covered by a gorgeous leaf, makes the flowers stand out best.
I love the light shining through the petals.
Or if you prefer other spring bulbs, peruse these beauties:
For those of you who are fans of Easter-egg-like crocuses, here’s a whole gradient of purples to pick from.
Who doesn’t wait each spring for the first snowdrop (Galanthus sp.) to poke its head up? They’re the earliest flowers you’ll see, usually making an appearance at the end of February.
These orange Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) remind me of African Crowned Cranes with their crazy headdresses. Like the birds, the flowers are super tall — about three feet.
Another variety of fritillaria, this “Fritillaria persica” was a new discovery I made at the Keukenhof this year. I bought three bulbs and planted them on our Oslo terrace. They were stupendous and stood about two feet tall!
I fell in love with “Fritillaria meleagris” years ago when visiting Glasgow, Scotland. The entire, forested front lawn of Charles Rennie MacIntosh’s Hill House was carpeted with these delicate little flowers. They stand only about eight inches tall, and their dangling heads shiver in the slightest breeze. I once got them to bloom back home, nestled in between the roots of an oak, which sheltered them from the notorious Chicago wind. Their speckled appearance has given them the nicknames “Guinea Hen Flower” and “Snake’s Head.”
Here’s a closeup of red climbing lilies (Gloriosa Rothschildiana) like the ones I bought at the Tulip Museum. They’re positively alien looking.
As you can see, we got so wrapped up in photographing flowers that we weren’t able to watch the flower parade as it passed by the Keukenhof. (I doubt we could have even gotten near it, given the huge crowds we’d seen lining the streets earlier.) So the next day, we took the local train to Haarlem for a closer look at the floats, which were parked along the main streets for everyone’s inspection.
The official name of the event is the Bollenstreek Bloemencorso (the Bulb Region Flower Parade); it has been entertaining tourists and locals alike for longer than any of its competitors. Three days beforehand, folks crowd a giant tennis court to watch hundreds of volunteers “pierce” (pin and decorate) 20 floats and 40 luxury cars with hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, and other spring flowers. Then on the last Saturday in April, the parade gets moving, winding 25 miles from Noordwijk, past Keukenhof Gardens, and into Haarlem.
Speaking of flower parades, did I mention that Matthew and I have an annual tradition of watching the entire Rose Bowl Parade on TV every New Year’s Day? Which explains why we geeked out about the opportunity to examine the floats, called praalwagens (“pageantry wagons”), at close range. Not just a feast for the eyes, these flower-bedecked vehicles tease the nose with their heavenly scents — and I’m sure they manage to make more than one pollen-sensitive person wish they’d double-dosed their allergy medicine.
The whole town gets into the act, with volunteers dressing up to pose in front the floats, pass out free flowers, and represent the 2016 theme of “Fashion and Flowers.” Shops and restaurants string strands of daffodils over every doorway, while bakeries bang out cupcakes bedazzled with fondant blossoms. Every half hour or so, a new marching band comes in to serenade everyone, making us all feel like we hadn’t missed the parade at all. And on that final note, here are a few more pictures of the event….
Most every door in Haarlem sported a garland made of daffodil and hyacinth heads.
A veritable garden of edible flowers festoons these pastries.
The King and Queen of Thailand sponsored this float promoting the flavors of their country. The baby pink elephants are also a theme on Delirium Tremens Belgian beer bottles — wonder if their royal highnesses intended the pun?
Two angry birds pose for the crowd.
Gotta love the lime green color of this car’s cape!
The “Purrrfumes of the Past” float featured two ladies dressed like Catwoman, who prowled through the crowd while meowing and acting like strays.
I particularly like that this bank float makes a broad hint at all the money the bulbs pull in for the Netherlands. Note that the sacks themselves are made of bulbs.
Matthew takes a peek while trying perfect our “Kissing Delft Dutch Couple” pose (note the float in the background.)
Performance artists on stilts also entertained the crowd.