Holland's flower fields are vast expanses of subtly undulating color, a brilliant patchwork of reds, golds, blues, pinks, yellows, purples that blanket the Dutch earth.
Dozens of varieties of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other blooms from bulbs sway smoothly, motivated by the gentle breeze, treating the eyes. They cover miles of land, as far as the eye can see. It happens every spring.
Thousands of tourists from the United States and around the world flock to see the flower fields each year. Many visitors, who want to take home more than snapshots, buy bulbs.
The bulbs can be bought all year, but they are shipped in mid-August or September for mid-September to December plantings. They bloom the following spring.
Dutch flower bulbs have been sought after ever since the first tulip, imported from Turkey, was planted near Leiden in 1558. Then, each rare bulb cost what would have been the equivalent of about $200. Today the bulbs and blooms are plentiful and cheap. They're sold everywhere, at all times of the year. The Dutch say they couldn't live without fresh cut flowers to brighten their homes, offices and shops.
Holland produces about 90% of the world's supply of flower bulbs. High production is due to ideal climate and soil conditions in the western part of the country.
The International Bloembollencentrum in Hillegom (near Amsterdam) does research on the industry and sets standards for growers throughout Holland. There is extensive experimentation and crossbreeding. New hybrids are developed each year; varieties are entered into the official catalogue only after careful testing for continued quality over time.
Of the 50 or 60 new flowers that appear each year, only three or four make the official list. These are first assigned numbers and, after several years, are given names.
There are about 10,000 registered varieties of tulips, and about 500 of them are considered popular. Forty of the most popular are stocked in most shops.
Selection is largely a matter of personal taste. Shop catalogues will give you a good idea of what is available, from the standard to the exotic. But the best way to make an informed choice is to visit Keukenhof Gardens, the flower industry's showcase near Lisse (between The Hague and Haarlem), where you'll enjoy 70 acres of flower-intensive parkland.
Keukenhof's flower beds contain about 6 million spring bulbs of all varieties--tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, crocuses, irises, gladioluses, dahlias. The magnificent gardens are open daily from March to late May, from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Admission is $3.
Trading at an Auction
Another living catalogue of the Dutch flower industry is the daily Aalsmeer Flower Auction at Legmeerdijk 313 in Aalsmeer, about half an hour's drive from Amsterdam. Much of Holland's mass-order trading takes place there. It is one of the largest flower markets in the world, selling about 3 billion flowers and 250 million plants annually. You'll find 18 acres of wall-to-wall, fence-to-fence flora to study, sniff and select from.
Selection is not only a matter of what's appealing; you have to get a bulb that will grow where you intend to plant it. It's best to consult the experts.
They'll tell you that the United States is divided into five growing zones, depending on climate. If your bulbs are destined for planting in Southern California or a similar climate, you have a choice of just about anything.
If your bulbs are intended for outdoor planting in Illinois, for example, certain early-blooming bulbs, freesias, for example, are not advised.
Getting the bulbs through U.S. customs can be tricky. Holland, in agricultural terms is, generally speaking, a "clean" country, free from most plant diseases. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), determined not to import other people's problems, has set the world's strictest regulations for the importation of plants.
Dutch-grown bulbs are no exception. Among the many USDA regulations, the key rule and real stickler seems to be that bulbs must be free, absolutely free, of dirt and soil.
Flower bulbs sold in the dozens of shops throughout Holland can be taken into most countries, but simply do not meet USDA standards. Loose bulbs look tempting, but they're not likely to pass inspection.
Some bulbs are sold prepackaged in net bags in various qualities and varieties, either of one kind or an assortment of bulbs. Most have been washed (you can see their clean surfaces), and the sealed bags have been given a certificate, intended to meet USDA regulations, by the Dutch counterpart of the USDA.
The Dutch Bulb Growers' Assn. recommends the purchase of prepackaged bulbs for export from several sources. These include Franz Roozen (Vogelenzangseweg 49, Vogelenzang, near Keukenhof Gardens), one of the foremost names in Dutch flowerdom, and an exceptional hybridizer who sells bulbs in packets of 10 and up, in collections or one-type bags.