History of the Dutch Flower Bulb Region

The Dutch bulb industry has an interesting origin, starting with a journey, the journey of an ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor traveling to Constantinople in the 1500’s.

Ogier Ghiselin Busbecq, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, was a gardener with a keen eye for a pretty flower. The beautiful flowers growing in the gardens of the city that is now Istanbul attracted his attention and roused his excitement. These most exquisite flowers were called ‘Lalé’, which were interpreted by his interpreter as ‘dulban’ or ‘turban’. The word morphed further to become ‘tulipam’ and eventually became ‘tulip’ as the flower is known today.

From Vienna to the Netherlands

In 1573 Busbecq used his influence to get his friend Carolus Clusius appointed as head of the Imperial Gardens in Vienna. Clusius was a well-traveled Frenchman was trained in medicine and botany and produced several botanical works. It was to him that Busbecq sent the first bulbs to be planted in Europe.

The gardens contained many plants that were considered rare and unusual at the time. The Fritillaria or Crown Imperial was named after the imperial gardens of Vienna.

The German naturalist Konrad Gesner in 1559, illustrated the first long-stemmed, red flowered Tulip cultivars, which have since borne his name in the species ‘gesneriana’.

It was Clusius who made bulbs popular in Europe even though it was Busbecq who first introduced them. Clusius moved to Leiden in the Netherlands after spending 14 years at the Imperial Gardens. He was the founder of the Hortus Academicus, the first botanical garden of ornamental plants rather than medicinal plants.

Tulip mania

Clusius developed a prize collection of tulips, which he sold for astronomical amounts. People admired the flowers but couldn’t pay the price, so they stole bulbs from Clusius to plant in their gardens. This is how Leiden became the first flower region. From here the famous Dutch bulb industry grew and flourished.

Today there are as many as 3 500 tulip varieties. Some of the most famous are the ‘broken’ variants which date back to the 1600’s ‘tulip mania’ when tulips became infected by a virus causing the flowers to have odd streaks of color. They became highly prized and sought after and worth a lot. The fad blew over and the market collapsed in 1637. They remain famous to this day thanks to the Dutch masters such as Rembrandt who painted them, and there are cultivars named after him on the market today. 

The bulb-growing area of the Netherlands

Apart from tulips, other important bulbs are lilies, gladiolus and narcissus, and most of these are grown in the world famous Dutch flower region in the south of the Netherlands. Flower bulbs prefer and thrive in sandy soil. The sandy area between Leiden and Haarlem is called the Bollenstreek, literally ‘bulb region’ and has been the hub of bulb cultivation for centuries.

This area includes the famous 70-acre Keukenhof flower garden to which thousands of visitors flock each spring to view the splendor of color of more than 3 500 different varieties of bulbs in bloom.

In the north of Holland, flower bulbs are cultivated in Kennemerland extending from Haarlem to Petten. Flower bulbs cultivation was introduced by wealthy merchants from Harlem and Amsterdam to this area in the 16th century. The sandy soil close to the dunes is ideal for bulb cultivation.

Some of the largest and most spectacular bulb fields can be found in the Noordoostpolder, Flevoland the 12th province of the Netherlands.

Dutch bulbs around the world

Dutch bulbs are justifiably sought after all around the world, and most of the bulbs that are planted in gardens around the globe are Dutch-grown. With generations of expertise to back them up, and perfect growing conditions in the bulb growing regions, there are few who can equal the bulbs grown by Dutch master-growers.