In Holland, a horticultural heaven

Flowers: In the spring, tulips, hyacinths and azaleas abound indoors and out in the Netherlands, but this is a banner year at the Keukenhof Garden

Destination: Europe

April 11, 1999|By Lisa Alcalay Klug | Lisa Alcalay Klug,Special to the Sun

A Menton tulip is the prima ballerina of its family, its lush, waxy petals the color of a ballet slipper. It grows waist high and its stem resembles a performer's long limbs. And when it covers the banks of a pond filled with swans, its pink reflection dances on the water, creating an almost impressionist illusion.

Of all the stunning varieties of tulips growing in Holland's Keukenhof Garden last spring, the statuesque Menton stole my heart. But it had lots of competition. Like a Dutch version of the Garden of Eden, Keukenhof boasts a cliche-defying display of premium tulips, along with select azaleas, hyacinths and other blooms, which are planted amid 80 acres of lush greenery every year. With babbling brooks, fountains and those majestic swans, the Mentons are in good company.

Like the flowers it showcases, the Keukenhof lasts only a short time each year. The gates open from Easter to late May only, during "Bollenstreek," the tulip season, when the countryside also transforms into a brilliant patchwork of color. This year is a particularly interesting time to visit Holland for two reasons. For the first time ever, Keukenhof plans to reopen Aug. 19 to Sept. 19 to premiere a fall garden, in honor of the park's jubilee. "Zomerhof" (from the words for summer and garden) is a 50th anniversary exhibition of flowering summer bulbs combined with perennials.

I paid my own homage to Holland's bulb district and its rich culture last May as the country was nearing the end of the tulip season. On my way to Keukenhof, I detoured to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, which is open for visitors mornings only. Nearly 14 million flowers (as well as 1.5 million plants) are sold here daily, making this the world's largest cut-flower market. This massive industrial complex is also one of the largest commercial buildings in the world, with its own hairdresser, bank and post office.

A second-story gallery gives visitors a bird's-eye view of the giant warehouse floor below. There, bustling electric trucks operate like toys, hooking up trolley after trolley packed with flowers. Some are delivered to shipping bays, where they are immediately sent out. Others are loaded onto an automated track that runs through various auction halls. But until the moment the flowers are auctioned, they are kept in large refrigerated areas. This makes the visitor's gallery refreshingly cool and moist.

Multilingual announcements -- cued by pushing small buttons at stations throughout a self-guided tour -- explain how the auction operates. Wholesalers and exporters place their bids through a high-tech system that flows at a surprisingly quick pace. An announcer describes the blooms. The price is set at 100 cents per unit on a giant overhead clock. And as the price falls, buyers punch in their bids. Like a quiz show, the first to respond (with the highest bid) takes the prize. The final purchase is confirmed on the massive marquis, and the whole process begins again as a trolley carries in more flowers. Tulips, carnations, chrysanthemums, freesias and gerbera daisies are among the hottest sellers.

After a quick bite in the cafeteria, we drove on toward the Lisse region, where Keukenhof is. The countryside turned picturesque, with thatched cottages, birds feeding along canals and fields of dazzling blue, yellow, white and other colors. Eventually, we found a spread of brilliant scarlet tulips. The sun was warm and bright and the expansive burning color reminded me of the intoxicating red poppies that put Dorothy to sleep in the "Wizard of Oz."

Our next stop was tranquil Keukenhof, resplendent with tulips, narcissi, daffodils, hyacinths and other bulbs. This sea of flowers dates to the 15th century, when the Countess Jacoba of Bavaria hunted amid the woodlands and virgin dunes here. In fact, the name Keukenhof, which means kitchen garden, stems from the tradition among her servants of cultivating vegetables and herbs here. The picturesque pond and a beautiful walkway lined with majestic beech trees originated in 1830, when a German landscape gardener named Zocher designed the first drawings for the park. In 1949, prominent Dutch bulb growers from Lisse further developed Keukenhof as an open-air flower exhibition to permanently showcase their best specimens. And over the years, the number of participating firms has more than doubled, from 40 to 90.

Each year, after Keukenhof shuts its doors, gardeners remove every single bulb and prepare 100 new designs. From late September until the first frost, a crew of 24 plants an astounding 6 million bulbs. When the season reopens, the park debuts a visual smorgasbord of new and old favorites, like the Menton. And because every flower in this living museum is kept in nearly perfect bloom, we only occasionally spotted small patches where tulips had already peaked and gardeners had "decapitated" their dying blooms.

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