A visit to a spring garden

Grape Hyacinth in Keukenhof provide a naturalized carpet of flowers among the trees. Photo courtesy of Bernadette Vangool.

by Bernadette Vangool
Saskatchewan Perennial Society

I visited Keukenhof in 2012 as part of a garden tour to Holland and Belgium. It was the highlight of the trip for me. I was blown away by the sheer size and beauty of the spring park in full bloom.

Keukenhof was originally a hunting estate of the castle of Jacoba van Beieren, herbs and vegetables for the castle kitchen were grown here, hence the name ‘Keukenhof’ or ‘Kitchen Garden’.  In the 19th century, architect Zocher designed the park for the current owners in the English landscape style. The property is now owned and overseen by a foundation. The first annual flower exhibition was held here in 1949.

All the flowering bulbs you see at Keukenhof are provided free of charge by over eighty ‘Royal Suppliers’ the best growers and exporters of spring bulbs. When Keukenhof closes at the end of May, the majority of the bulbs are dug up and wont be used again. In the fall, seven million new bulbs will be planted over a two month period, by the thirty some gardeners employed at the park.

In some areas of the park grape Hyacinths have been allowed to naturalize among the beech trees. Here bulbs are allowed to remain in the ground after blooming. They come up every year and multiply to form a continuous carpet.

Four pavilions with coffee shops and indoor displays are scattered throughout the park. These are named after Dutch Royalty and each has its own themed displays and gardens. For example the Beatrix Pavilion contains a huge variety of orchids and outside showcases a Japanese garden, while the Juliana Pavilion houses the bulb information centre and the Museum The Black Tulip and outside features a natural garden with perennials and naturalized bulbs. Besides the four pavilions named after royalty the Oranje Nassau Pavilion feature new judged flower shows every two weeks.

The park would not be complete without the very symbol of Holland the windmill. The mill gives visitors an opportunity to view the fields of tulips adjacent to the park.

When confronted in Holland with the vista of field after field of tulips and bulbs, it is easy to forget that the tulip did not come from that country, but originated in Central Asia in mountain ranges west of the Himalayas. Millions of years ago, the tulip began to spread to India and China and was cultivated in the Black Sea area since the 12th century.

Turkey became enamoured with the tulip during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), who was a great plant enthusiast and especially loved the needle tulip, a narrow tulip with small long tapered petals.

Augier Ghiselain de Busbecq, Ambassador for the Holy Roman Empire, arrived in Turkey in 1554, and he too loved the tulips and distributed them freely to international contacts. Tulip trading started between Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Antwerp, and nurseries started to grow bulbs in the Flanders and France. It was another 50 years before Carolus Clusius introduced the bulbs officially to the Netherlands.

Carolus Clusius, was a well respected botanist who was in charge of the Imperial Gardens of Venice in 1573. In 1592 Carolus Clusius was appointed Hortus Profectus, Head Botanist of the Leiden University, and brought with him the bulbs that his friend Augier had given him. In 1594 the first Dutch tulip flowered in the medicinal nursery garden of Leiden University. A passionate scientist Clusius developed classification systems to determine early, middle and late blooming varieties. Nursery owners were intrigued and saw the value of this relatively new plant, but Clusius refused to part with any of his beauties, except for outrageous prices. They finally resorted to raiding his gardens at the University. And this is how it is said that the Dutch tulip industry got its infamous start.

If you are planning a spring vacation to Amsterdam or the Netherlands don’t forget to set one day aside for a visit to Keukenhof.

This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; saskperennial@hotmail.com ). Check our website (www.saskperennial.ca) or Facebook page (www.facebook.com/saskperennial) for a list of upcoming gardening events