Discover the Bollenstreek, Holland’s Bulb Paradise

A small strip of land known as the Bollenstreek supports the centuries-old Dutch tradition of bulb breeding — and you can visit these spectacular blooming fields every spring.

| Spring 2018

Each spring, a passion for bulbs inflames the Netherlands countryside. Sprawling fields burst into bloom and greet hordes of tourists eager to visit the heart of the bulb growing industry. Travelers are greeted by massive blankets of color — a technicolor patchwork of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths.

I was lucky enough to visit bulb country recently, but not as a tourist admiring the cultivars planted chockablock by the millions. As a writer and member of the seed searching team for Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, I’m tasked with finding the most outlandish and rarest plant gems. The bulbs I seek have exotic origins, historical significance, and unique quirks — characteristics that set them apart from the usual selection offered by big-box stores.

Distant Origins

Although the sandy soil of the Netherlands is ideal for growing bulbs, tulips (Tulipa spp.) are native to arid regions of Central Asia, near the modern-day border between Russia and China. The Turks first cultivated wild tulips in the early 11th century. Turkey experienced a tulip fever in the mid-1500s, during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Later that same century, Austrian ambassador and tulip lover Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq introduced the tulip to Western Europe when he collected samples and sent the exotic specimens to famous Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius.

At the time, Clusius was the director of the botanical garden Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, South Holland. (South Holland and North Holland are provinces in the Netherlands.) Clusius planted these curious new flowers with the intention of studying their medicinal purposes, and noted that the introduced bulbs thrived in the local climate and sandy soil. The flowers’ striking beauty enchanted garden visitors, and soon bulbs were being stolen from Clusius’ treasured medicinal garden. The pilfered bulbs quickly multiplied and spread, and the flowers became a coveted ornamental flower around Europe.

“Tulip Mania” in Europe

With incredible variability in color, pattern, shape, and size, the highly adaptable tulip became the subject of experimental breeding. By the 17th century, tulips had become a status symbol among the Dutch aristocracy and inspired famous paintings. Bulb selling and trading skyrocketed into the 1630s in a phenomenon known as “tulip mania.” Bulb prices peaked in 1636 and 1637, when particularly prized varieties were sold for as much as the cost of a home. The passion for tulips coincided with increased wealth throughout the Netherlands based on a thriving maritime trade. Many people participated in growing and selling tulips as the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme, sinking huge amounts of cash into bulbs for breeding. Eventually, insecurity and panic burst the economic bubble surrounding tulip breeding and trading, losing fortunes and destroying livelihoods across the region.

Despite the collapse of tulip mania, the Dutch have continued to adore the tulip. The flower is one of the Netherlands’ national symbols, and the North and South Holland provinces have long been considered the center of the bulb industry. Approximately 90 percent of the world’s tulips are grown in this small country, with production concentrated in a few coastal areas. Every year, an average of 4 billion tulips are grown in the Netherlands.

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