Tulips: A 400 year love affair

Our monthly garden club speaker this week will be teaching us the fine art of watercolor painting using tulips as our subject and I was asked to construct a centerpiece of tulips for the meeting.  Tulips are in every grocery store and marketplace this time of year and just shopping for the few I need transports me back to the Netherlands and especially to a rare garden, Hortus Bulborum, devoted entirely to the conservation of historic bulb varieties.

Traveling with local friends and led by bulb growers/writers/photographers/educators (as well as friends), Brent and Becky Heath, meant that we mostly skipped the touristy side of the bulb industry and were introduced to the trade through their long connections to growers of Holland.

Hortus Bulborum in Lummen, North Holland

Hortus Bulborum is located in the small village of Limmen in the province of North Holland, where my first impression was that bicycles and horses might outnumber the few residents I saw on this chilly, misty morning.

The village of Limmen in North Holland

We began our tour with an introduction to the history of the bulb and this museum. From the original tulips growing in Central Asia and brought to Leiden by Carolus Clusius in the 1593, to the bulb thefts that probably led to the tulip rage, to the height of the tulip bubble, to the market collapse in 1637, and finally…. we learned about the collection of historical cultivars by Pieter Boschman, a local headmaster in Limmen, that led to the development of this bulb garden in the 1920s.

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The garden is fairly small, just measuring about a 4-acre square but there are thousands of cultivars of historic interest, labeled and arranged alphabetically. You will find tulips, but also narcissi, fritillaries, crocus, hyacinths blooming in the spring. A visit at different times will see different bulbs in bloom.

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The vast majority of the tulips that are planted each year are no longer available in the marketplace…. so it’s possible that they could vanish altogether without this living museum that preserves the gene pool for modern hybridizers.

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Hortus Bulborum is managed by volunteers who deadhead the flowers before the petals drop, dig the bulbs when the foliage dies, and replant them each fall. The bulbs are rotated like vegetables and planted in a different part of this sandy, flat garden to lessen the risk of disease.

Hortus Bulborum volunteer

Hortus Bulborum

Bulb enthusiasts already love to visit this archival classroom but visitors were few on the day we were there. If you are a gardener, I would recommend adding Hortus Bulborum to your bucket list for at least one visit for the history alone…as these bulbs are not where you would look for new varieties for your garden. Bulbs that are commercially available for your garden you will find at Keukenhof Gardens, an hour away from Limmen.

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