If you need one reason to visit the Netherlands, it has to be Keukenhof Gardens. But be warned; it will completely change the way you look at gardens.
Shortly after my trip to Keukenhof, I visited a historic building in London, took a peek at the flower beds and found them wanting. But that is to be expected after I have experienced Keukenhof’s feast of colours that took me to the kaleidoscope of my childhood days.
A barrel organ by the water feature churned out nostalgic music as I entered the grounds. I walked towards what looked like the edge of a woodland with tall trees in the background. A sweet fragrance hit me. I learnt that it is that of the hyacinths; there were purple, pink, lilac, maroon, yellow and blue blooms. Daffodils in their signature bright yellow shone like beacons leading me to the tulips. There were masses of them in yellow, orange, red, white.
I walked along the path and whole patches of daffodils greeted me, creamy white with a yellow trumpet, white with an orange centre like a fried egg, all white with a tiny yellow centre, and double petalled ones.
Some stone steps led me to what looked like a river of bright blue with banks of yellow daffodils on either side. They are muscaris, I learnt. Voices of fascination in all languages penetrated my silent awe. Nestled amongst the woodland trees are pockets of colour leading down to the lake where more spectacular displays await.
As this is the Netherlands, it goes without saying that tulips are the centrepiece of the flowerbed design. They come in all colours except black, (which only exists in Alexander Dumas’ 1850 novel).
There are tulips in various sizes and shapes – small ones and some as large as a plate, shaped like champagne, wine or brandy glass, with thick waxy petals or soft ones, with single or multi-layered petals, with pointed, smooth, rounded edges or frilly edges.
Keukenhof is a spring garden that opens two months of the year from the third week of March. But in this short time, 800,000 visitors from 100 countries would have visited the garden.
So what draws these visitors? It’s the 32-hectare grounds with seven million bulbs that ensure flowers bloom throughout the period the garden is open.
Located in the Netherlands’s bulb-growing district of Lisse, 25 km from Amsterdam, Keukenhof began as the kitchen garden (keukenhof is kitchen garden in Dutch) of Countess Jacoba van Beleren who lived in nearby Teylingan Castle in the 15th century.
In 1857, the celebrated landscape architect, Jan David Zocher was commissioned to turn the grounds into a park and the effect is stunning. Instead of keeping to the flat lowland that is typical of the Netherlands, Zocher adopted the style of the English gardens with slopes, winding paths, lush green lawns, a lake, little streams, bridges and woodland.
Its transformation into a living showcase for the Netherlands’s bulb growers started in 1949 when 20 bulb exporters asked for permission to use the grounds for a permanent exhibition of spring bulbs. When it opened to the public in 1950, 236,000 visitors turned up.
Today, this international showcase of Dutch floriculture comes from seven million bulbs, donated by 100 royal suppliers, which are hand-planted by 30 gardeners from autumn to create these spectacular displays.
To ensure there are coloured blooms on each patch throughout the two spring months, bulbs are planted in three layers with early bulbs like crocuses at the top, followed by early tulips or daffodils below, and by late-flowering tulips at the bottom. Complementing these colourful blooms are 150 sculptures from 50 artists.
Indoors, three pavilions host a changing display of flowering plants (30 in total). These are provided by 500 bulb growers. The Beatrix pavillion hosts the most beautiful orchid show in Europe while the Willem-Alexander’s fortnightly displays include 15,000 lilies in 300 varieties.
As this is the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death, Keukenhof’s themed flower mosaic in the grounds of the Oranje Nassau pavillion features the self-portrait of the artist created out of six different types of tulips outlined by purple muscaris.
History of tulips
One might be forgiven for thinking tulips originate from the Netherlands but they were originally found in the Tian Shan mountain region of the northwestern Himalaya. They were taken to Turkey in the 11th century by the Seljuks from where it found its way to Antwerp in Belgium. Carolus Clucius, a Belgian doctor who was more interested in medicinal plants got hold of these bulbs and brought them to the Netherlands with him in 1593 when he was appointed director of the botanical gardens in Leiden.
In the early 17th century, interest in tulips increased amongst the rich Dutch middle class and its slow propagation meant that demand exceeded supply leading to much speculation on the precious bulbs. At the height of the tulip mania between 1634 and 1637, people were selling their jewellery, land, and businesses to trade in tulips. This inspired Alexander Dumas’ novel, The Black Tulip. Top varieties like the Anvers fetched 1,000 guilders, more than five years’ salary for a schoolteacher at that time.
The tulip bubble eventually burst in Haarlem in February 1637 when the expected buyers didn’t turn up at a bulb auction, causing the market to crash, sending many into ruin.
Today, the Netherlands is the world’s largest producer of tulip bulbs, with 4.2 billion bulbs planted annually. Almost 2,000 different cultivars are cultivated commercially with 100 new ones added to the variety annually. The Netherlands supplies 70% of the world’s flowers.
NEXT: Other things to do around Keukenhof