Bits of the Benelux: Dutch tulips emerge with colorful history

By Sandra Wilson, USAG Benelux Public AffairsMarch 8, 2023

A detailed photograph of tulips at the Keukenhof, the Netherlands, May 11, 2022. From March 23 to May 14, visitors and residents alike can find a plethora of activities in the Netherlands celebrating the famous flower. (Photo by Libby Weiler, USAG Benelux Public Affairs) (Photo Credit: Libby Weiler) VIEW ORIGINAL

[Editor’s Note: The following story is the ninth in the series Bits of the Benelux. This series takes a deep dive into the stories, cultures and traditions found throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.]

USAG BENELUX - BRUNSSUM, Netherlands – Tulips, windmills, clogs, and cheese – for many people, these things bring to mind the country of the Netherlands and its western coastal region of Holland.

As winter transitions into spring, tulips emerge as a focal point for the Dutch. Residents can see the flowers poking out of the cold ground in villages and cities, as well as throughout farmlands and curated flower parks.

These brightly-colored tulips, hailing from the lily family, symbolize both economic revenue and a colorful history for the country.

The Netherlands is the world’s number one exporter of cut flowers, with more than 2 billion shipped out each year. International sales of tulips alone rake in 250 million euro annually for the country, leading the Dutch to set aside nearly 35,000 acres of land to grow the bulbs.

Considering the amount of tulips produced and exported from the Netherlands, it could be assumed the flower originated there.

However, the credit actually goes to the Ottoman Empire (now present-day Turkey), and Sultan Suleiman the First, who discovered tulips in the mountains of Kazakhstan during the 16th century. The flower’s beauty elevated it to a symbol of power and wealth that the empire’s sultans donned on their turbans.

The Persian name for turban, “tulipan,” was adopted for the flower both because of its use as an adornment and its similarity to the shape of the turban.

Suleiman often gifted tulips to important guests of the empire. These included a Viennese ambassador, who afterwards shared the flowers with his friend, Carolus Clusius, a professor at Leiden University and head of the Hortus Botanicus Leiden (now the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands).

In 1593, Clusius planted the first tulips in the Netherlands in this botanical garden with no initial plans to share his new-found flower. The rarity of his collection did not go unnoticed, however, and residents subsequently raided his garden on several occasions.

After a few decades, the flower finally caught hold of the Dutch public eye and a four-year craze known as “Tulip Mania” began during the second wave of the Bubonic Plague. Bulbs became a form of currency, skyrocketing in value until a handful could purchase an Amsterdam canal house.

This time period is often considered the first economic bubble in the history of capitalism—and when it burst in 1637 it left some individuals rich and many poor.

Despite the tulip’s value in the 17th century, when famine struck during World War II the Dutch resorted to eating the bulbs. During the extreme winter freeze of 1944 and 1945, many people lost their lives to starvation and residents began to use tulip bulbs, along with sugar beets, as a form of sustenance. Some doctors even offered recipes to patients on how to prepare the bulbs for eating.

More recently, tulips have been viewed as an international symbol of the Netherlands and during the 20th century the Dutch began giving out the flower as a sign of gratitude and to foster friendly diplomatic relations.

Canada, China, the U.S. state of California and the Vatican City are just a few places that have been gifted Dutch tulips for special occasions.

Shortly following World War II, tulips were sent as a gift to Canada. In 1943, the Dutch Royal Family fled to Ottowa, Canada, to escape the war in Europe. During their stay, Princess Margriet was born in a local hospital maternity ward that was temporarily declared international territory to allow the baby to inherit her mother’s Dutch citizenship—essential to maintain her right as heir to the Dutch throne. After the war, the Royal Family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs as a sign of gratitude for the temporary extraterritorial declaration. Since then, the Netherlands continues to send a gift of 20,000 bulbs each year, and in 1953, the Canadian Tulip Festival was born.

Tourists from China have long held the Dutch Keukenhof tulip gardens as a top destination to visit in Europe. As a result, in 2008 the Dutch spring tulip festival recognized China as the host of the Beijing Olympic Games by creating a Chinese dragon made up of 24,500 tulips.

Beginning in 2019, The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in San Francisco, California, hosts an American Tulip Day each March by supplying 100,000 tulips in Union Square, free for the taking. The bulbs originated from the Netherlands but now are grown in the U.S., and the special celebration highlights the strong partnership between the American and Dutch floral industries.

The Vatican City’s relationship with tulips began in 1986, after Pope John Paul II visited the Netherlands and decided to put the Dutch in charge of the Vatican’s Easter floral display each year. For almost 40 years, the Netherlands has transported tens of thousands of flowers to St. Peter’s Basilica along with 25 florists to arrange the display in the square before Easter morning.

From challenging times to prosperous ones, the tulip has made its mark on Dutch history and the world. The brilliant colors—initially discovered in 1931 to be a virus spread by aphids but now bred artificially—have further increased the appeal of the famous flower. Today, visitors from all around the world travel to the Netherlands to experience the annual festival of tulips each spring.

Whether it’s watching the tulip parade of floats, biking past farm fields full of color, viewing the floral artistry at the Keukenhof or witnessing the world’s largest flower auction, tourists can see for themselves the contribution of tulips to Dutch heritage.

Dutch activities celebrating the tulip run from March 23 to May 14, 2023. For more information, visit the Tulip Festival Amsterdam website.

Additionally, for those in the Netherlands and Germany, USAG Benelux-Brunssum MWR is offering a trip to visit the Keukenhof tulip gardens on April 8. For more information, call +31 (0) 45-534-0232.

For those in Belgium, SHAPE Trips and Tours is offering a trip to the garden on April 22. For more information, call +32 (0)65-44-3884.

This series, Bits of the Benelux, will continue to explore the many cultural traditions in and around the Benelux. Further stories like this on the local traditions, festivals, and events are scheduled to be published monthly, as they occur.