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They call Keukenhof "the greatest flower show on earth." And no wonder! The stage is a 32-hectare (79-acre) park, between Amsterdam and The Hague, near Lisse.

The actors are seven million bulb flowers. The backdrop is natural woodland. Ornamental shrubs, a working windmill, blossoming fruit trees, cascades and canals serve as props.

Act I begins in mid March with carpets of crocuses sprouting as harbingers of a dazzling display of tulips, narcissi, daffodils and hyacinths in April and May. Successive scenes feature fruit trees, lilacs and lilies blossoming in a symphony of color and fragrance.

Yellow tulips
Yellow tulips
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Directors of the performance are leading Dutch bulb-growers who display their flowers in separate gardens, some formally laid-out, others growing naturally below centuries-old trees.

Flowering bulbs

Heavy-headed white hyacinths, resembling popcorn on a stick, dance with voluptuous daffodils in frilly skirts, while battalions of tulips, in colorful uniforms, march row after row under the command of an unseen choreographer.

Years ago, Keukenhof was the kitchen garden of a vast estate belonging to the Countess Jacqueline of Bavaria. Today, it is a showplace attracting thousands of people annually from around the world.

They come to stroll along pathways, passing pools where pink flamingos look pallid compared to the flowers around them. When visitors get tired, they rest on strategically placed benches or enjoy refreshments on sunny terraces overlooking the multicolored extravaganza.

A vast complex of greenhouses display hundreds of varieties of tulips, growing in little gardens accented with statues and tiny waterfalls.

Fresh flowers for sale
Fresh flowers for sale
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Hybrid tulips

Nearly all the flowers have names — catchy titles like "Peeping Tom," "Little Red Riding-Hood" and "Black Parrot." The latter refers to a deep-plum, curly-edged tulip with petals so purple that they're almost black. Other varieties have petals so thin that they're almost stringy.

Dutch horticulturalists are continually developing new and exotic colors and shapes of tulips. Besides growing experimental blooms, they also develop ways to control diseases that attack the bulbs.

Viruses can attack tulips, causing abnormal, but beautiful, colors and shapes. During the 17th century, these tulips were highly prized. Paintings by the great Dutch masters often depict tulips suffering from viruses.

Today, growers realize that viruses produce progressively smaller and smaller bulbs. Because the quality of a blossom is partly determined by the size of its bulb, farmers propagate only virus-free bulbs.

Man with wooden shoes transplants hyacinths in garden.
Man with wooden shoes transplants hyacinths in garden.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Dutch tulip bulbs

Few people realize that tulips did not originate in Holland. They were first imported from Turkey in 1554 as collectors' items. By the 17th century, the speculation in bulbs became a mania.

Merchants were so obsessed with their beauty that they would pay thousands of dollars for a single bulb. The tulip even gained a stock market value and fortunes were both made and lost.

Tulips are still a big business for Holland. Bulb fields stretch for miles across the countryside. During the peak season, a rainbow of vivid colors carpets the earth for as far as the eye can see.

Dutch bulb fields

A tour of the bulb fields can easily be combined with a visit to Keukenhof, for it lies in the heart of the tulip-growing area between Den Helder and Leiden.

Roads along these routes are clearly signposted for those traveling by car, and frequent bus tours are available for those who'd prefer not to drive.

The brilliant strips of multi-hued flowers are usually called "tulip fields" by tourists. But to the Dutch, they're known as "bulb fields," because it's the bulbs that farmers export.

Surprisingly, the methods of growing them have changed little over the centuries. The whole bulb industry is still carried on by hand. Bent figures, frequently wearing klompen (wooden shoes), can be seen weeding, spraying and picking the blossoms.

Red and yellow tulips surround couple in bulb field.
Red and yellow tulips surround couple in bulb field.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Yes, picking. Perhaps the most disconcerting sight for a first-time visitor to Holland is a field of decapitated tulips, with row after row of erect stems pointing skyward.

Tulips are generally polled a few days after flowering so that the bulbs will retain the sap. The blossoms are tossed into wicker baskets and unceremoniously dumped into heaps to await removal by tractor-drawn carts.

We'll never forget the time that we stopped to look at a particularly beautiful stack of blossoms — only to be chased away by an irate male swan whose mate had selected the scenic spot for her nest!

Flower parade

Flower processions, called bloemenkorso, take place in the spring, summer and autumn throughout Holland. One of the most spectacular is held in the vicinity of Keukenhof in late April.

Hyacinths cover float depicting two policemen on bicycles in Lisse Flower Parade.
Hyacinths cover float depicting two policemen on bicycles in Lisse Flower Parade.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Floats for the first floral procession in Lisse, in 1950, used wet moss as a foundation for the flowers. The floats frequently became so heavy that the cars and tractors carrying them collapsed under their weight.

Today, professionals construct the floats according to drawings that depict the theme selected for the year. They use a basic frame with reinforcing steel and reed mats to form the shape.

Agile fingers attach clusters of hyacinths (up to 1.5 million per float). Tulips, daffodils and extravagant bouquets decorate other floats.

Noordwijk Holland

Flower parades are festive occasions. As each float travels between Noordwijk and Haarlem, the intoxicating scent of hyacinths envelopes spectators.

Garlands of fresh flowers decorate cars and buses. Baskets of blossoms hang from streetlamps. Bouquets decorate homes and shops. And floral mosaics adorn lawns along the parade route. Even barges in the canals resemble floating flower gardens.

There is no better way to celebrate the rites of spring. A visit to Keukenhof and the Dutch bulb fields will leave you with colorful memories that linger like the scent of flowers.


Keukenhof: www.keukenhof.nl

More things to see and do in Holland:

Dutch Foods, Drinks and Cuisine

Rijksmuseum at Schiphol Airport

North Holland Tour

Utrecht Holland Vacation

Dutch Phrasebook