Keukenhof Spring Garden Holland: Tulip Mania

by Drucilla James

On arriving at the Keukenhof, all you see at first is a mass of dazzlingly-coloured tulips and crowds of people capturing artistically posed selfies in amongst the blooms or assiduously disregarding the ‘do not walk on the grass’ notices to be photographed by their loved ones. Yet other amateur cameramen, inspired by the sheer exuberance of ‘the most beautiful spring garden in the world’, are composing close-up images of flower interiors and blossom clouds.

All these scintillating pyrotechnics and seemingly endless vistas of yet more and more stunning tulips are probably as much as most visitors see as they respond to the coming of spring in the bulb fields with the old atavistic pleasure. 

keukenhof rows

And yet this passing spectacle, a mere eight weeks long, takes painstaking year- long effort to achieve  – involving reviewing; planning brand new designs; planting by hand over 7 million bulbs, layered to maintain the splendour throughout the show; sowing 7,500kg of grass seed; and clearing away  and destroying the bulbs at the end.

And both the setting and the event are historic. Named after the kitchen courtyard or Keukenhof of Jacoba of Bavaria from the fifteenth century, the main structure of the garden is an English country landscape with lake and avenue of beeches established by Baron Van Pallandt around 1850. While the annual flower show, intended to promote the wares of bulb growers in the surrounding areas, was initiated by the Van Lynden family in 1949.

keukenhof english

What to see

Tiptoeing through the tulips in their ribbons and strips and beds and bunches, a good place to start a tour is that English landscaped garden with its twelve swans leased each year to float serenely on the lake and swathes of colourful planting.

By way of contrast there are the formal gardens, which fan out from the Oranje Nassau pavilion.  Laid out with topiary and flowers, the area includes references to Holland’s water-managed landscape with dikes and dunes and a bandstand on a terp- the artificial mound used as protection against high tides.  There is also Europe’s largest water feature – a 140 metres long canal with fountains at either end. Inside the Oranje Nassau Pavilion are extraordinarily elaborate flower arrangements from the classic to the ultra-modern with an Amsterdam flower stall as backdrop.

oranje Nassau 1

Close by, on either hand, are the Maze, similar to those once planted with yew trees to trap enemy horses who ate the berries and died, and the Historical Garden with its examples of tulips down the ages.


Dispersed across the site are three more pavilions to visit including the mighty Willem- Alexander glasshouse hosting changing plant displays alongside ideas for small garden window boxes and containers; the Queen Beatrix Pavilion overflowing with artfully arranged orchids; and the Queen Juliana Pavilion vivid with depictions of the tulip mania of the 17th Century.

keukenhof orchids

Finally there are the more modern gardens- a Japanese Natural Garden located next to the 159 year old windmill, the Natural Garden, and the Spring Meadow and Flower Forest, established in 2005, which include the Inspiration Gardens – patches the size of a Dutch back garden constructed for potential replication back home.

inspiration cooking

This year these include Recycle Garden where all the planters are salvaged sanitary ware, Love Garden with Cupid seats and hearts, Cookery Garden full of inventive container-grown planting, Bee Happy Garden, Health Garden focussed on a collection of exercise bikes and Family Garden planted by TV gardener Rob Verlinden.

inspiration gardens Rob

To mark its 65th anniversary, this year the Keukenhof is taking Holland as its theme and there is a flower mosaic, best seen from the viewing platform, composed of 60,000 tulips and Muscaris representing Amsterdam canal-side houses with in front a tulip of the same dimensions, symbolising tulip mania. 

keukenhof mosaic

The origins of tulip mania

Our meanderings through the delights of the Keukenhof are reminiscent of the pleasure taken by the Turkish sultans when introduced to the tulip, by the 11th Century Seljuks, from its native Tian Shan mountain region in the north-western Himalaya. The tulip, named after the Persian word for a turban, tulipan, became a cherished flower in Turkish culture and the sultans organised tulip parties each spring and had the most extraordinary tulips illustrated in beautiful books and on tiles.

The Dutch traded with Constantinople and botanists such as Dodeneus and Clusius were able to obtain tulip bulbs and have the first examples flowering in Antwerp and Mechelen by 1560. Clusius, was extremely interested in the tulip and when he became Director, of the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden in 1593, he took the bulb with him and wrote about it in his book ‘Drawn after Nature’ which has some of the oldest and most beautiful botanical illustrations.

The Historical Garden contains living examples of some of the old tulips, including a single early ‘Duc Van Tol Red and Yellow’, dating to 1595 and a pink-white ‘Lac Van Rijn’ first described in 1620.

The growing passion for tulips particularly those with flame-like effects reminiscent of marble, led to the overheated markets and subsequent crash of ‘Tulpomania’. Slow tulip bulb reproduction which meant supply didn’t increase quickly, but demand did, led to speculation, with each buyer paying higher amounts than the previous one and more than a thousand Dutch guilders being paid for some tulips – an astronomic amount, particularly at that time. A bulb  like ‘Semper Augustus ‘could cost the same as a canal house – that is until the frenzied speculation came to an abrupt end in February 1637.


Tulipomania is but an aspect of the age -old search of Dutch bulb growers to produce different varieties leading to ever more colours, flower shapes, stem heights and flowering seasons.The pursuit of a black tulip even gave rise to a Dumas novel about the competition for a prize of 100,000 guilders for the first grower to produce such a flower. The black ‘Queen of the Night’ ‘Ronaldo’ and ‘Blackjack’ can now be seen at the Keukenhof amongst the 15 tulip groups and thousands of varieties represented.keukenhof botticelli

The ingenuity and persistence involved in producing these become even more admirable when you consider that it takes 25 years, with 99.9% discarded along the way, to produce a perfect tulip.

And finally

The Keukenhof is intended to inspire the domestic gardener in many ways – not least to buy tulip bulbs and create decorative displays. Why not, as a memento of your visit, plant up your own mini –Keukenhof using their instructions below.

keukenhof make your own

The Keukenhof Festival runs from 20th March to 18th May 2014.


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