BY WENDY HUGHES

Tulips in Keukenhof

With snow and sleet showers threatening the UK again this weekend, we would be forgiven for thinking that spring is beginning to forget that the UK exists.  But across the North Sea the people of the Netherlands are busy preparing its yearly display of tulips.

The blooming period for tulips in Holland begins in mid-March and lasts until the end of May, with a peak bloom period in mid-April. The weather in Holland during the spring is typically cool, and the moist nature of the soil makes it perfect for tulips to grow, but what about their history?

An array of colour

Our knowledge of bulbs dates backs to the Egyptians when a papyrus of 1800bc mentions ‘coichicim, and squill’ bulbs being used for medicines, and there are even records of the Pharaohs growing anemones in their gardens and that they used narcissi and lilies in funeral wreaths.  Then following the fall of the Roman Empire interested in garden waned until a monk. Walfrid Strabo wrote the earliest known book on gardening in the 9th century.  During the Crusades and the Renaissance there became a revival in interest in plants and gardens, most probably because people were travelling.  The English, Dutch Italians, French, Spanish, Germans and Austrians were becoming more interested in their gardens, and by the 16th century lilies, hepaticas, and tulips were being brought to England for the first time.

Holland

The great explorers of the day sent plants to their homelands, and people like Tradescant even listed the plants he grew in Lambeth, London in 1656, mentioning more ten varieties of crocus and twenty-five varieties of hyacinth, iris and tulip.

But it was the Dutch who were establishing themselves in the colonies of South Africa with plants such as oxalis, freesias, gladioli and clivias, and they had already introduced tulips, lilies to New Amsterdam (New York) by 1642.  Tulips began to appear throughout Holland and many new varieties developed albeit through a very haphazard type of cross-breeding. During the Thirty years war the tulip became an item of speculation and prices went up as growers tried hard to produce more bulbs in more unusual colours.  In 1623 a single bulb fetched the equivalent of several hundred dollars, and between 1634 and 1637 Holland was hit by ‘tulip mania,’ until the Dutch government stepped in and issued a decree to bring the prices down.

Tulip Bulbs

The blooming period for tulips in Holland begins in mid-March and lasts until the end of May, with a peak bloom period in mid-April. The weather in Holland during the spring is typically cool, and the moist nature of the soil makes it perfect for tulips to grow.  Today, Holland is still known for its tulips and other flowers, often being affectionately called the ‘flower shop of the world.’ Tulips are cultivated in great fields of beautiful colours and during the spring tulip festivals are held throughout the country in the spring.

In the Kop van Noord-Holland, you will find millions of tulips, hyacinths and other flowers, which transform the landscape into a sea of colour with the Tulip Festival being organised in Noordoostpolder from late April to early May. Flower markets and gardens abound, Aalsmeer, near Amsterdam, which houses the world’s biggest flower auction, and is really something to see.

Keukenhof flower gardens

Keukenhof is the international showcase for the Dutch floricultural sector, with a special emphasis on flower bulbs. In the space of eight weeks Keukenhof shows what is on offer, and the park’s focus is on the 7 million spring-flowering bulbs, which allow the 100 participating companies to show their living catalogue. 500 flower growers present an enormous variety of cut flowers and pot plants at the over 20 flower shows and is a must see spectacular. So, perhaps as we wait for spring to arrive in the UK we should be thinking of crossing the water to see the biggest flower display in the world.

Tulip in bloom