Anyone interested in passion and heartbreak need look no further than a flower garden. And there is no better place to look than Keukenhof (in Lisse, the Netherlands), which opens tomorrow for its 2017 season. It is the largest flower garden in the world and it specializes in tulips–which, like orchids, have driven people to distraction, debt, and death.
Keukenhof means ‘kitchen garden, but don’t let the name fool you into thinking it’s unobtrusively tucked round the back of a manor house; it covers 32 hectares (79 acres) and is known as the Garden of Europe. This botanic wonderland features 7 million bulbs in bloom, including 800 varieties of tulips: botanical tulips; Greigii tulips; parrot tulips; single early, double early, single late, and double late tulips…. The list goes on.
High on that list are “broken” tulips, which originally were cultivars infected with a tulip breaking virus that “broke” the plant’s single-color code, causing streaks, stripes, and flames of different colors to appear on the petals. Today, the same effects are achieved through breeding; only a few varieties of truly “broken” tulips still exist. But 380 years ago, the virus and those tulips caused people to lose their heads. While tip-toeing through the crowds at Keukenhof may not be for the faint-hearted, neither was the tulip trade in 17th-century Amsterdam.
Tulips are believed to have originated in current-day Iran; in fact, some scholars suggest the name “tulip” comes from the Persian word for “turban.” The flowers were highly prized by the Ottomans, and it is from ambassadors and visitors to the Ottoman courts that the flowers likely made their way to Northern Europe, and to the Netherlands. Carolus Clusius, a Flemish botanist and professor at the University of Leiden, planted the Netherlands’ first tulip bulbs in the university’s botanical garden in 1593.
Clusius’ tulips received a great deal of attention. Tulips were already considered an exotic flower in the Netherlands, and the virus only made them more so. As a result, there were regular raids on Clusius’ gardens and the market for tulips began to heat up, leading to the infamous Tulip Mania of 1634-37. At its height, a single, prized tulip bulb was worth exponentially more than the average person’s annual income, and more than a luxurious canal-side house. The tulip had become the ultimate status symbol. Some people put mirrors in their gardens to suggest there were more tulips than they actually had. Those who could not afford the bulbs bought furniture, art, and tableware decorated with tulips instead. And then the world’s first—but not last–speculative bubble burst, leaving a trail of shattered dreams and destitution in its wake. (This animated Ted Ed video puts it in perspective.)
If you want to see the flowers that inspired these events, Keukenhof’s 2017 season runs from March 23 to May 21. As you wander the grounds, you will see that modern-day tulips still have the power to inspire; it is not unusual to see visitors climbing into the flower beds to pose for photos while lying among the blooms. But spare a moment for the many other flowers you are likely to see, too, because they are also worth the attention:
River of Muscari (Grape Hyacinth) ‘Blue Magic’