- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

LISSE, Netherlands — The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la,

Breathe promise of merry sunshine …

Gilbert and Sullivan had it just about right. Whether the sun is shining or the air is misty with rain, it’s springtime in the Netherlands, and the daffodils, hyacinths and tulips — especially the tulips — breathe a promise of glory.

Every year since 1949, from mid-March to mid-May, the gardens of the Keukenhof estate near the town of Lisse, 20 miles southwest of Amsterdam, open to the public (for a fee). The 79-acre park is a splendid combination of gently rolling lawns, lakes, fountains, trees, sculpture and spring flowers bursting from 7 million bulbs.

Four large pavilions are ablaze with magnificent flower displays. The park has a small zoo of sheep, goats and piglets; a playground for children; several restaurants, snack bars and ice cream vendors; a small maze; and, of course, a shop selling bulbs.

Everywhere, an abundance of tulips of every imaginable type and color seduces the eye and romances the senses, from white to purple so deep as to suggest black, from the palest pink to most brilliant red, from golden yellow to glowing orange. The air is perfumed with hyacinths.

The flower beds are planted each year by the large Dutch bulb producers, each trying to outdo the others in originality and beauty. Colors are combined in eye-catching patterns. Sometimes a bed will contain tulips of different types and colors, sometimes of only one spectacular blazing shade.

Others will have a border of lavender-blue hyacinths setting off tulips in contrasting hues. Sections of the park are designed as gardens: an English landscape, a nature garden, a Japanese garden, a historical garden with old tulip types, and a contemporary flower forest.

Wherever the eye falls, there’s a hymn to nature’s perfection in glorious color.

Lakes, canals and a windmill add a festive Dutch dimension to the gardens. Trees shade the pathways meandering through the park. Flat steppingstones in a shallow area of a large lake give the impression that visitors are walking on water.

Contemporary sculptures of bronze, glass, ceramic or metal are scattered on the lawns throughout, adding a sometimes whimsical, sometimes romantic touch.

Inside the pavilions, some flower shows remain constant throughout the two-month season while others feature different flowers each week, ranging from tulips to chrysanthemums and including roses, amaryllis and azaleas. The lily exhibit is said to be the largest indoor lily exhibit in the world. Who’s to argue? In two of the four pavilions, the focus is on plants.

Keukenhof sponsors flower-oriented programs such as workshops in flower arranging, painting and photography and musical performances in an outdoor theater.

In honor of Rembrandt’s 400th birthday this year, 20 schoolchildren from a nearby village planted 60,000 bulbs in the fall, re-creating one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits in a colorful 33-by-46-foot portrait in spring blossoms.

Rembrandt also is commemorated with double early striped tulips named for the painter because they were particularly popular during the tulipmania that developed between 1620 and 1637, when frenzied collectors’ speculative bids forced the price of bulbs to fantastical levels.

Aside from the blooms we usually associate with the Netherlands, Keukenhof has an annual tradition of showing orchids. The 26,000 species of orchids represent the largest plant family on earth, mentioned in documents dating to A.D. 300. Keukenhof exhibits both wild and hybrid orchids.

Magnificent as all the flower exhibits are, it is primarily the tulip that we associate with the Netherlands. Tulips originally came from Central Asia (daffodils are from Spain and Portugal) and have been cultivated in Turkey since the 11th century.

Legend has it that a handsome prince, stricken with love for a beautiful maiden, heard that his beloved was dead. Grief-stricken, he mounted his horse and galloped over a cliff to his death. A red tulip sprang from each drop of his blood, making the tulip the symbol of love ever after.

Under Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, tulips became a symbol of Ottoman culture, part of the accouterments of wealth and power. The Turks preferred the thin pointed flowers prevalent in Ottoman designs. In the 18th century, Sultan Ahmet III, the “tulip king,” encouraged his court to hold extravagant feasts in his honor.

Tulip festivals were held at night under a full moon, with crystal lanterns shedding a golden glow on myriad vases filled with flowers. Ladies wore gowns in colors to harmonize with the blossoms.

During Ahmet’s reign, laws governing the cultivation and sale of tulips were enforced strictly. Buying or selling tulips outside the capital was punishable by exile.

Tulips arrived in Europe in the 16th century. Their arrival usually is attributed to Charles de l’Ecluse, a botanist also known as Carolus Clusius, born in Flanders in 1526. Clusius had worked in Prague and Vienna before being appointed head botanist at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

While in Vienna, Clusius met the Austrian ambassador to the Turkish court in Constantinople. The ambassador gave Clusius some tulip bulbs, which the botanist took back to the Netherlands. The tulip Clusius planted in a garden in Leiden first bloomed in 1594.

Clusius was interested primarily in the scientific and medicinal usage of the tulip. Others, however, saw the commercial aspect of the flowers.

The Netherlands’ great tulip craze began in the early 17th century. Tulips embellished furniture, ceramics and woven fabrics. Hybrids became increasingly beautiful, and certain bulbs became highly prized. Prices rose in the 1620s to the point where a single rare bulb sold for the equivalent of $2,250 plus a horse and carriage. Some bulbs were traded without ever leaving the ground. The craze continued during the 1630s until the crash came in 1637 and many a rich tulip trader turned pauper overnight.

Yet tulips remained in the Netherlands and became a major part its economy, as it became the first wholesale producer of bulbs, mainly tulips. The Netherlands today produces about 9 billion flower bulbs, 7 billion of which are exported. Export to America began in earnest in 1845.

There’s a charming new small tulip museum in Amsterdam where a visitor can learn about the history of tulips in Holland and watch a short video on the cultivation of the bulbs.

Tulip bulbs will sprout off-spring each year. Once the flower has grown, it is cut and discarded. The bulbs are harvested, cleaned of soil and dirt, washed, dried, graded according to size and processed for distribution and sale.

All the arduous work that once was done by hand is done now by machine. Many of the tulip fields where the bulbs are cultivated can be seen outside the Keukenhof gardens. Row upon row of tulips, separated by color, are grown for the production of bulbs.

The museum sells all sorts of objects decorated with tulip motifs, as well as the bulbs themselves. The owner of the small private museum is well versed in the growing of tulips and is happy to chat with a customer about the flowers.

Flowers are very much part of everyday life in the Netherlands. Dinner guests are expected to arrive with a bouquet of flowers for the hostess. Flower stands are ubiquitous in Amsterdam, although the splendor of Keukenhof is limited to the park. Tulips flower in April; the bulbs are not available until June, so a visitor must be content with one or the other, depending on the time of a visit.

Amsterdam has a pretty year-round flower market in the center of town along the Singelgracht, one of the city’s many canals. In April, the large open-air shops are ablaze with packages of tulips ready for sale.

Boxes of bulbs line the sidewalk, but in April the bulbs are not spring flowers, but many other kinds, including exotic plants from Asia. It’s a tourist area, so the rear of the flower shops are filled with such tourist attractions as magnets, ubiquitous souvenir tiny wooden shoes, pencils topped with windmills, miniature wooden tulips, and so forth.

Nothing in Amsterdam, however, compares to Keukenhof, the flower gardens that served as the vegetable or kitchen garden of Countess Jacoba of Bavaria in the 15th century. Hence the name: Keuken in Dutch means kitchen; hof is yard or garden. The kitchen garden was part of the countess’s hunting grounds. Today, all you can hunt for is your favorite hybrid.

A visitor can’t resist the flowers, the peace and calm of the park, and inevitably leaves singing the lyrics of Mr. Gilbert or humming the tunes of Mr. Sullivan, tiptoeing through those tulips:

And that’s what we mean when we say that a thing

Is welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring. Tra la la la la…

Tra la, indeed.

• • •

United Air Lines and Northwest-KLM fly nonstop from Washington Dulles International Airport to Amsterdam. Continental flies there from Newark, N.J., and other flights depart from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Most international carriers connect to Amsterdam from their European hubs.

For more information on Keukenhof, go to www.keukenhof.nl.

To reach Keukenhof from Amsterdam, daily bus tours from the city to the gardens are offered as either half-day tours or full-day excursions. The price of entry to the gardens usually is included in the tour price.

Keukenhof also can be reached by train from Amsterdam’s Central Station to Leiden. Trains run about every half hour. From Leiden Central Station, Bus No. 54 runs to Keukenhof; taxis also are available.

Keukenhof closes May 21. Next year’s dates are March 22 to May 20.

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