AMSTERDAM - If you need one reason to visit the Netherlands, it has to be Keukenhof. But be warned: It will completely change the way you look at gardens.
Shortly after my trip to Keukenhof, I visited a historic building in London, took a peek at the flower beds and found them wanting. But that is to be expected after experiencing Keukenhof's feast of colours, which took me back to the kaleidoscope of my childhood days.
A barrel organ by the water feature churned out nostalgic music as I entered the grounds. I walked towards what looked like the edge of a woodland with tall trees in the background. A sweet fragrance hit me. I learnt that it was that of the hyacinths. There were purple, pink, lilac, maroon, yellow and blue blooms. Daffodils in their signature bright yellow shone like beacons, leading me to the tulips. There were masses of them in yellow, orange, red and white.
I walked along the path and whole patches of daffodils greeted me, creamy white with a yellow trumpet, white with an orange centre like a fried egg, all white with a tiny yellow centre, and double petalled ones.
Some stone steps led me to what looked like a river of bright blue with banks of yellow daffodils on either side. They were muscaris, I learnt. Voices of fascination in all languages penetrated my silent awe. Nestled among the woodland trees were pockets of colour leading down to the lake, where more spectacular displays awaited.
As this is the Netherlands, it goes without saying that tulips were the centrepiece of the flower-bed design. They come in all colours except black, which exists only in Alexander Dumas' 1850 novel.
There are tulips of various sizes and shapes: small ones and some as large as a plate, shaped like champagne, wine or brandy glasses, with thick waxy petals or soft ones, with single or multi-layered petals, with pointed, smooth, rounded edges or frilly edges.
Keukenhof is a spring garden that is open for two months of the year, from the third week of March. But in this short span, 800,000 visitors from 100 countries would have visited the garden.
So what draws these visitors? It's the 32ha grounds with seven million bulbs, which ensure that there are flowers blooming throughout the period that the garden is open.
THE GARDEN THAT GREW
Located in the Netherlands' bulb-growing district of Lisse, 25km from Amsterdam, Keukenhof began as the kitchen garden (keukenhof means kitchen garden in Dutch) of Countess Jacoba van Beleren, who lived in nearby Teylingan Castle in the 15th century.
In 1857, the celebrated landscape architect Jan David Zocher was commissioned to turn the grounds into a park, and the result is stunning. Instead of keeping to the flat lowland typical of the Netherlands, Zocher adopted the style of the English gardens with slopes, winding paths, lush green lawns, a lake, little streams, bridges and woodland.
Its transformation into a living showcase for the Netherlands' bulb growers started in 1949, when 20 bulb exporters asked for permission to use the grounds for a permanent exhibition of spring bulbs. When it was opened to the public in 1950, 236,000 visitors turned up.
Today, this international showcase of Dutch floriculture comes from seven million bulbs - donated by 100 royal suppliers - which are planted by 30 gardeners from autumn to create these spectacular displays.
To ensure there are colourful blooms on each patch throughout the two spring months, bulbs are planted in three layers with early bulbs like crocuses at the top, followed by early tulips or daffodils below, and by late-flowering tulips at the bottom. Complementing these blooms are 150 sculptures from 50 artists.
Indoors, three pavilions host a changing display of flowering plants (30 in total). These are provided by 500 bulb growers. The Beatrix pavilion hosts the most beautiful orchid show in Europe, while the Willem-Alexander's fortnightly displays include 15,000 lilies in 300 varieties.
As this is the 125th anniversary of Vincent van Gogh's death, Keukenhof's themed flower mosaic on the grounds of the Oranje Nassau pavilion features the self-portrait of the artist, created using six types of tulips and outlined by purple muscaris.
A LONG WAY FROM HOME
One might be forgiven for thinking tulips originate from the Netherlands, but they were originally found in the Tian Shan mountain region of the north-western Himalayas. They were taken to Turkey in the 11th century by the Seljuks, and found their way from there to Antwerp in Belgium.
Carolus Clucius, a Belgian doctor who was interested in medicinal plants, got hold of these bulbs and took them to the Netherlands with him in 1593 when he was appointed director of the botanical gardens in Leiden.
In the early 17th century, interest in tulips increased among the rich Dutch middle class and its slow propagation meant that demand exceeded supply, leading to much speculation on the precious bulbs.
At the height of the tulip mania between 1634 and 1637, people were selling their jewellery, land and businesses to trade tulips. This inspired Dumas' novel, The Black Tulip. Top varieties like the Anvers fetched 1,000 guilders, more than five years' salary for a school teacher at that time.
The tulip bubble eventually burst in Haarlem in February 1637 when the expected buyers did not turn up at a bulb auction, causing the market to crash and sending many into ruin.
Today, the Netherlands is the world's largest producer of tulip bulbs, with 4.2 billion bulbs planted annually. Almost 2,000 different cultivars are cultivated commercially, with 100 new ones added annually. The Netherlands supplies 70 per cent of the world's flowers.
OTHER THINGS TO DO AROUND KEUKENHOF
Cycle through bulb fields People see photographs of colourful patches of tulips and expect to see them in Keukenhof, but these bulb fields are actually in Lisse, just outside the gates of Keukenhof. Your visit is incomplete without cycling through these fields. Rent a bicycle at the entrance to Keukenhof. You will also be given a map with four signposted routes on dedicated cycling lanes.
Flower auction A visit to Amsterdam is incomplete without a trip to FloraHolland, the world's biggest flower auction house in Aalsmeer.
You can take the 198 bus from Schiphol Airport to the site, located 15km south of Amsterdam. The journey takes 20 minutes. With a warehouse as big as the state of Monaco, FloraHolland trades 20 million stems of flowers and two million potted plants a day. It handles 12.5 billion flower sales annually.
Operating as a cooperative, it has 5,000 members among local growers and 600 from overseas.
Flowers can come from a nursery a few kilometres away or from abroad like the roses from Kenya, which travel in temperature-controlled conditions from the nursery to the auction room.
The auction starts at 6am and visitors are allowed in from 7am. From the walkway on the upper floor, visitors can witness the organised chaos of cartloads of flowers being picked up on scooters to and from the auction room.
The auction operates like a stock exchange trading room. Men in a theatre-style setting, eyes locked on their terminals, frantically jab their thumbs on buttons on the sides of their tables to bid.
Unlike normal auctions, the seller sets a price and a unique auction clock bearing a photo of the flower or plant starts, and the price drops in an anti-clockwise direction. Traders watch the clock on the wall and at their terminals. Everything happens in the blink of an eye, hence the frantic clicking of buttons. A consignment of flowers can travel from a bulb field to a European city within 24 hours.