Tulipmania: Hortus Bulborum

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hortus Bulborum: Tulips, tulips, tulips!

Think quick! What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word "Holland"?

Windmills? Wooden shoes? Progressive social policies?

Chances are it's tulips. If you want to see this iconic flower at its best, and learn some fascinating history to boot, visit the small village of Limmen. It's an easy 20-minute bus ride from Alkmaar, in the northern part of the country.

Get off at the bus stop "Limmerbuurt" (appropriately enough, right in front of a flower shop). Cross the street, walk two minutes towards the 8th century brick church, and you've arrived.

You are at the Hortus Bulborum.

From Duc van Tol to Dinky Diversion

The Hortus is a botanical treasure, with the largest collection of bulbed plants, such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and fritillaria in the world. It's only open to the public for a month (usually April 6 to May 16), when the flowers are blooming.

Kew Gardens it ain't. You can see the whole garden in an hour if you are a soul-less zombie who doesn't particularly care for gardening. Or you can stroll between the sandy rows for half the day, taking in the astounding colors and shapes, asking questions of the passionate, English-speaking volunteers, visiting the small information centre (with an amazing assortment of flower bulbs for sale, dirt cheap.

I enjoyed the Hortus far more than its more famous, and much bigger, cousin the Keukenhof. The Keukenhof is for commercial growers. It's pretty (how flowers not be beautiful), but it's about money. Plus there are literally busloads of tourists.

The Hortus is about love. It's about preserving genetic diversity. There are the stumpy Duc van Tol tulips, dating from 1595, and the taller single early tulips made famous in paintings by Judith Leyster and other Dutch Masters. There are the incredibly tiny wild tulips. There are blazing red flowers, pink tulips, all shades of orange and yellow, striped tulips, and frilly tulips.

And don't even get me started on the daffodils. The glorious colors aside, I feel in love with their names. Yellow Cheerfulness. Abba. Gambler's Gift. Prince Igor. Winged Victory. President Carter. "We have some 800 types here. All different. If you find two of the same type, we'll deliver the bulbs to your home, free, with champagne!" said a volunteer.

Ignore the bizarre fritillaria, a rather confused soul whom I think needs therapy. But I will remember the deep blue of the wild hyacinths for a long time.


An added plus for visiting is learning some of the history of the bulbs. Tulips come from two main gene centres: Tian Shan in Central Asia and the Caucasus. They traveled the Silk Road and came to the West via Turkey (the name "tulip" comes from the word for "turban"). Europeans first ate the bulbs. They quickly realized tulips were better to look at than eat.

The history of tulips in the Netherlands is equally interesting. Tulips became so popular that their sale attracted mass speculation. Selling bulbs before they were harvested could make enormous profits. Prices doubled or tripled in a week or a day. Huge sums of money, houses, land, crops and jewelry were traded for bulbs. Calvinists preached against the speculation, but the madness continued-until the crash of 1636-37, when a single bulb of Semper Augustus sold for the astronomical sum of 6,000 florins. Sounds like the current sub-prime mortgage crisis.

I couldn't resist either. I bought a package of bulbs, to be collected in October. The sampler included Duc van Tol and other heritage bulbs like those Rembrandt and Leyster painted. I paid 100 euros (about US $150) for 50 such bulbs.

It seemed a small price for history and conservation.

Contact: Hortus Bulborum, Zuiderkerkenlaan 23/a, Limmen, the Netherlands. Web: www.hortus-bulborum.nl
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