If you’ve got a thing for flowers, color, beauty, history and sweet-smelling air, the Netherlands’ Keukenhof Gardens, not far from Amsterdam, is the place for you. It’s gorgeous. So gorgeous, in fact, that no one has ever taken a bad photograph there. Well, not of the flowers anyway.
Keukenhof is the world’s largest flower garden, with more than 70 acres (around 32 hectares) of parkland filled with more than seven million bulbs — tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, narcissi, gladioli. But mainly it’s about the tulips, of course, since this is the Netherlands. And you can’t get lost in the gardens because there is one big landmark to guide your way — yep, it’s a windmill; after all, this is the Netherlands. Tulips, tick. Windmills, tick. I haven’t gotten to clogs yet, but I will …
History of the Keukenhof Gardens
The tulip gardens at Keukenhof were established in 1949, the idea of W.J.H. Lambooy, the then-mayor of the nearby town of Lisse. He and and leading bulb-growers thought an annual open-air flower exhibition would be a good thing — largely for the local bulb-growers to be able to exhibit and sell their wares.
They decided on the Keukenhof estate, using the former herb and vegetable garden area of the 15th-century Countess of Holland, Jacoba van Beieren. Hence the name of the place: Keukenhof literally means “kitchen garden.”
These days, the park includes seven inspiration gardens (ideas for you to try in your own, somewhat smaller, plot at home!); bronze sculptures by Dutch artists scattered around the place; changing exhibitions of flowers; and tents or kiosks from local bulb-growers where you can order your favorites, which will then be delivered around September when the bulbs are in their deepest hibernation, gathering strength for next year. Every year about three billion (that’s 3,000,000,000!) tulip bulbs are produced in Holland.
Tulips in the Netherlands
One of the most amazing things about tulips is their variety and color. Every year Dutch growers breed new strains of the flower. Which brings me to more history and the most amazing thing I discovered in my investigations of Keukenhof: Tulips are not Dutch at all! Well, they are now, about 500th generation (if every year is a generation for a bulb?). But they do not grow wild in the Netherlands and never have.
In fact, the natural habitat of the tulip is the rocky, dry, mountainous regions near the border of China and Russia. The kind of flat, below sea-level, damp earth of the Netherlands is the tulip’s least favorite environment, although I’m sure by now they have adapted. And the Dutch are very good at draining soil, let’s face it. So how did tulips get to the Netherlands? And why did they become such a national symbol?
Carolus Clusius, a botanist who worked in Vienna, met with the Austrian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, A.G. Busbequius. Busbequius gave him some tulip bulbs, a flower he had first seen in the gardens of Constantinople (now Istanbul). In fact, the tulip’s name is thought to come from the Persian word for turban (toliban which, when changed into Latin, became tulipa) because there was a visual similarity between the hat and flower. Clusius then took a job at Leiden University in Holland and planted his tulip bulbs.
From there, tulips became the new black. Tulipmania followed, with speculation in tulips reaching such dizzying heights (and losing so many Dutch their fortunes, houses and peace of mind) that the government stepped in during 1637 to stop the tulip windhandel (literally “tulip wind trade”). Now the tulip is no less desired, or valuable, but the trade is more even-tempered. It is also now firmly a Dutch symbol and foundation of the country’s economy, its roots in the East largely faded into history.
Tulips + Ukulele = Tiny Tim
But not only have tulips been important to one country, they were crucial in the life of one short man with a high voice: Tiny Tim. His 1968 hit song, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” made him a worldwide star. It wasn’t an original but a cover of the song written in 1929 by Nick Lucas (the song had four other incarnations on the pop charts through the 20th century).
I think Tiny Tim was the only one to add ukulele, though, and that made him a standout! Married live on “The Tonight Show” surrounded by 10,000 tulips, naming his daughter Tulip, finally being buried in a coffin full of tulips — no one could say Tiny Tim was not grateful for the leg up tulips gave him in life. A useless but fascinating fact: Tiny Tim’s televised wedding to Miss Vicki in 1969 attracted 84 percent of the American TV audience, coming second only to the moon landing in ratings during the 1960s. I bet producers these days wish they could match that. Perhaps if Britney surrounded herself with tulips and … but back to Keukenhof.
Keukenhof Gardens Trip-Planning
In 2016, the Keukenhof Gardens are open from March 24 to May 16. The rest of the year, the bulbs sleep — not a bad gig. But during those few open weeks, the flowers really deliver. The sheer scale immerses you in color and fragrance. Part of what makes the gardens so special is that they’re only open for approximately eight weeks each year. There’s no theme-park style manipulation of nature here. No hothouse tricking the bulbs into thinking it’s spring year-round. The flowers bloom from March to May, so that’s when you can go and see them. Perfect.
Many day trips to Keukenhof are available from Amsterdam, and it’s also easy to get to the gardens by public transport from Amsterdam or Haarlem. There’s even a bus that goes directly to the gardens from Amsterdam Airport Schipol.
One final word of advice: Keukenhof Gardens is a big place. You’ll be doing a lot of walking. You probably shouldn’t wear clogs. (And you thought I’d forgotten …)
>> Plan your trip to Amsterdam with our Insider’s Guide.