From billion bulb exports to Rambo: Here’s 10 things about tulips

red and white tulipsSpring is officially here and that means the tulip season is almost upon us. You’ll still need a little patience before the tulip fields are in full bloom, but here are some facts and figures about the Netherlands’ eponymous flower – which actually originated around the Mediterranean.

1 Dealing with cut tulips
Dutch grandmothers have many wise tips to make the most of cut tulips. For a start, they say you should leave the flowers wrapped up in paper and put them into a vase of water (at room temperature) overnight. This will keep them fresh for longer.

To stop the blooms drooping, push a pin through the stem just under the bloom. This is supposed to stop them growing – which many cut tulips do.

A good bunch of tulips will last for well over a week, but beware of those bargain bunches of 50 tulips for five euros… they may well be past their prime. Mind you, we are very fond of the wonderful shapes which tulip petals form once they’ve been in full bloom.

old dried tulip

2 Tulip varieties
All new tulip varieties have to be registered with the grandly named Koninklijke Algemeene Vereeniging voor Bloembollencultuur (KAVB). It has over 8,000 different kinds on its list. Among the most popular sorts are the Strong Gold, the Leen van Mark, the Debutante and the Viking.

3 The black tulip
A book by Alexandre Dumas about a competition to grow the elusive black flower.  No one has yet succeeded but some have come close. On the market today are the Black Parrot, the Queen of the Night and the Ayaan Hirsi Ali, named after the Somali refugee turned Dutch MP and anti-Islam campaigner who now lives in the US. Operation Black Tulip was also the name given to the process of deporting German nationals who lived in the Netherlands after World War II.

4 A major industry
The amount of land dedicated to growing bulbs in the Netherlands has soared by almost 75% in the last 35 years. Most bulbs are grown in the sandy soils of Noord-Holland but Drenthe, Flevoland and Overijssel are doing their best to catch up. The tulip is still the most popular bulb by far: almost half of the bulb fields bring forth tulips. The Netherlands exports some two million bulbs a year and has almost 400 growers.

Cultivation of tulips in greenhouse perspective

5 What you see is not what you get
Few of the riotous blooms you see in the Netherlands in spring are going to end up in a vase on your sideboard. They are being grown for the bulbs. Once the flowers are in full bloom, the heads are stripped off and discarded. The bulbs themselves are harvested by big machines later in the year. Then they are washed and the dried roots and bulblets are removed by hand, a process known as bollen pellen. The bulbs are then graded according to size. Big bulbs are sold and smaller ones kept to plant next year. It takes two to three years for a bulblet to become big enough to sell.

This video is a bit long (thank you Tractorspotter) but does show just how highly mechanised and unromantic the process really is.

Most of the cut tulips which you buy in shops have been grown in greenhouses. They are first planted in sand boxes and stored in a refrigerated room. Then they are moved into greenhouses to speed up the blooming process. This means growers can ensure a supply of tulips over several months.

6 An emergency foodstuff
During the last bitter winter of World War II when people in the Netherlands were starving, tulip bulbs became a source of sustenance. The war had stopped trade and there were plenty of bulbs to be had. The papers published recipes for potato, cabbage and tulip bulb stew. The bulbs, minus their green flower bud, took about as long to cook as potatoes and their taste is not dissimilar (apparently).

7 A stock exchange boom
In the 17th century, Haarlem became the centre of tulpomania, or tulip madness. Bulbs like the Semper Augustus could fetch prices of 10,000 guilders, which was what you would have to fork out for a house on one of the canals. The speculative bubble burst and instead of bulb-shaped gold ingots, tulips became tulips once more.

8 A craze
The craze for tulips – the wackier the flame patterns the better – was satirised by the artists of the time. Jan Breughel II, for instance, painted an allegory on Tulipomania which features monkeys as bulb traders going about their business.

satire on tulipmania

To the right, one of the speculator monkeys is hauled up in front of the magistrates while another pees on his stock of Semper Augustus, presumably already made worthless by the crash. The painting is on show at the Frans Halsmuseum in Haarlem.

9 A tribute
When French artist Claude Monet visited the Netherlands in 1886 he loved the tulip fields around The Hague so much he painted them five times. He sold all five paintings to Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s art dealer brother.

Tulip fields near Leiden by Monet

Vincent van Gogh, as we know, preferred sunflowers. He did have a reddish-brown tulip named after him last year by the Keukenhof when his work was that year’s theme.

Other famous folk who have had tulips named after them include Mickey Mouse, Rambo, Armani, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd and Abba

10 Tulip events
The Keukenhof, which opened for the 2016 season last week, came into being in 1950 when local bulb growers and exporters decided they wanted a showcase for their varieties. The park proved to be an instant hit. Now in its 67th year, the Keukenhof is a major tourist attraction and attracted a record 1,175,000 visitors last year. Every year the Keukenhof displays are centred around a specific theme. This year it’s the Golden Age.

Museum De Zwarte Tulp is in Lisse where much of the bulb action takes place and is housed in an old bollenschuur, the sheds where tulip bulbs were processed and stored. Amsterdam has a tulip museum next to a cheese museum and we think both are simply an excuse to sell stuff to tourists.

From 20–24 April, it’s Corsoweek in the Bollenstreek – the area south of Haarlem where bulb growing is concentrated. The floral procession between Noordwijk and Haarlem takes place on April 23.

Throughout April, Amsterdam has its own tulip festival.

If you can’t get enough of tulips, Haarlem’s Frans Hals museum (with all the great paintings), local brewery Jopenkerk and the Keukenhof are working together on a Tulpomania tour, which runs until May 16.