April has to be one of my favorite months for the explosion of blooms, and in particular, tulips. Over the late autumn, I planted a variety of tulips of different shapes, sizes, bloom times and colours. It’s difficult to choose from the wealth on offer from specialist growers, who receive tulip bulbs in bulk from Holland, but it helps to get your order in early as so many sell out.
Unlike other spring bulbs, I wait until late November to early December to plant them. In my garden, they grow best in large, well-prepared containers. Sometimes I create a “bulb lasagna” containing three layers made up of tulips, narcissi, and on top, crocus. I’ve found tulips to be less floriferous in subsequent years, so I buy fresh bulbs each year (quite different than daffodils, for example, which bulk up and get better each year, if well cared for).
Tulips throughout history
Tulips were originally a wildflower from Central Asia, first cultivated by the Turks in as early as 1000 A.D. The name ‘tulip’ came from the Turkish word for turban. They were introduced into Western Europe and the Netherlands in the late 16th century, probably by a biologist who was the director of the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, the oldest botanical garden in Europe. That was the start of the bulb fields in the Netherlands.
In the beginning of the 17th century, tulips gained popularity as a decorative plant, especially in Holland. The interest in the flowers was huge, and botanists started to hybridize them. Hybrids and mutations of the flower were seen as rarities and as a sign of high status. From late 1636 to early 1637, there was a complete “Tulipomania” in the Netherlands. Some examples cost more than a house in Amsterdam.
In the 20th century, it was discovered that tulips with frilly petals and dramatic flames, which were stunning to look at, were in fact displaying the symptoms of an infection by the mosaic virus. The healthy flowers were supposed to be solid, smooth and monotone, but the effects of the symptomatic flowers are too hard to resist. There are at least 3,000 registered tulip varieties, organized in 15 different groups.
The Keukenhof Gardens
The best place to see tulips starts with your own garden. At a public garden or park, my all-time favorite must be the Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands. It’s an easy day trip by train from Amsterdam, which I’ve done several times, booking my entry ticket in advance. The Eurostar from London provided a fast connection to Brussels, followed by another train to Amsterdam.
“Keukenhof” means “kitchen garden” in the Dutch language. It’s named such because the park is situated on a 15th-century kitchen garden and hunting estate. It’s one of the world’s largest flower gardens, located in the municipality of Lisse, South Holland.
The park covers around 79 acres (about 32 hectares) with approximately seven million flower bulbs planted in the gardens annually. Keukenhof is widely known for its tulips, but it also features hyacinths, daffodils, lilies, roses, carnations and irises. It’s open to the general public for the eight-week tulip display from mid-March to mid-May, but I’ve found mid-April to be a peak time.
Keukenhof, the park as we know it, was established in 1949 by a consortium of bulb growers and flower exporters so they could showcase their products. The garden opened to the public in 1950, and is operated by a charitable foundation. Each autumn, a large team of gardeners plant the seven million bulbs that are donated to the park by more than 100 Dutch growers.
The flowerbeds are synchronized with the different tulip bulb flowerings to ensure blooms throughout the duration of the park’s eight-week opening. To ensure continuous bloom, three bulbs are planted in each location. The shallowest bulb will bloom first for three weeks, followed by the subsequent layers. A kind of “bulb lasagna,” but on a grand scale!
A ramble in Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt was a must after visiting Keukenhof. It’s the only floating flower market in the world, and it’s been around since 1862. The flower stalls stand on the houseboats in one of the canals and evoke the old days when the market was supplied by boat each day. Spring bulbs can be purchased there, including plenty of tulips.
The star of April is tulips, supported by an exceptional cast of other spring bulbs, trees and shrubs coming into leaf, along with bird song and warmer, calmer days. Getting out in the garden or on a nature walk lifts and calms both body and spirit. Ah, April.
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image 1: Kent Wang; image 2: pxfuel (Cropped from original)
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