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Holland in Bloom - A Glorious Sight

Posted By Allan Swenson, Sunday, October 1, 2006
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Holland in Bloom is a glorious sight indeed. As a long time garden writer, I was asked to lead a river cruise and tour that included some of Holland’s most famous cities including Delft, the Hague, Leiden and Amsterdam with its world-famed Keukenhof Gardens. They were in peak profusion with more than 7 million flowers blooming in 70 acres of delightful designs.

River cruises have become increasingly popular over the past few decades according to Helena Novak, VP of General Tours who had planned this special trip. The ships are slim and trim, designed for canals and rivers throughout Europe. The MV Casanova, an elegant 5-Star Peter Deilmann ship had an appropriate romantic name for such a colorful springtime cruise.

As a veteran garden writer my goal was to provide insights so passengers could enjoy their visits to leading botanical gardens as well as the colorful Keukenhof displays. From there participants could transplant bulb growing ideas to their home gardens.

Our carefully planned General Tours itinerary included famed historic sites, medieval towns and landmarks, dramatic cathedrals and churches tracing their history back 1000 years and of course, gardens to enjoy too.

Venice of the North

First on our 9 day agenda was a cruise of Amsterdam’s canals to view that appealing city from its waterways. From the canals we could see many of the charming homes while we dined leisurely on board.

With its numerous waterways, Amsterdam has become known as the "Venice of the North”.

Amsterdam is noted for its Dam Square, (its real name) which is the very heart of the city. The square is dominated by the impressive Royal Palace, originally used as the town hall. It has a classical façade and fine sculptures intended to glorify the city and its government.

The Hortus Botanicus is one of the oldest botanic gardens in the world. More than 6,000 plants from around the world grow in the gardens and greenhouses. Historically, the City Council founded Hortus Medicus, a medicinal herb garden in 1638 as a result of a plague epidemic. Only pure plant species as they are found in nature are grown in the Hortus as a resource for study and to conserve threatened species by growing them and exchanging seeds with other botanic gardens around the world.


Our second day began with an exploration of Delft and the imposing medieval houses, cobblestone streets, market squares and historic buildings. This city is renowned for its classic Delft Blue pottery, which was famous in the 17th and 18th centuries when there were 32 ceramic factories in Delft. Today, Royal Delft is the only factory remaining.

Delft citizens are especially proud of historic ties with the Dutch royal house, dating back to William of Orange. On the Queen’s birthday citizens enjoy donning bright orange hats and clothing to celebrate that part of their Dutch heritage.

The Old Church with its curious leaning tower dates to 1246. The New Church circa 1496, accommodates the mausoleum of William of Orange who is considered the founding father of the Netherlands. This impressive church is noted for its tall Gothic tower rising 109 meters and its set of chimes.

The Hague is the seat of government of the Netherlands and home to Clingendael Park with magnificent rhododendrons and a beautiful Japanese garden. This charming city combines ancient architecture with modern buildings housing foreign embassies. The Hague also is home to the International Court of Justice, a United Nation agency which began as the Peace Palace, endowed in 1903 by American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.


Leiden is another appealing city, the birthplace of several important Dutch painters including Rembrandt whose 400th birthday was celebrated during 2006. In the 17th century the English settlers who became known as the Pilgrims took refuge in Leiden before leaving for North America.

The Leiden Botanic Garden is another resource garden worth visiting. It is the oldest botanical garden in Holland, dating back to 1590. The founder, Carolus Clusius in 1594 became the first person to cultivate tulips in Holland. Since then, Holland has grown to become the world’s premier source for tulips. Millions are grown every year and shipped worldwide.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, one of the most famous painters in history, was born on July 15, 1606, in Leiden, an area that became Holland’s famous bulb growing region. At the time of Rembrandt’s birth, the tulip was still a recent introduction to Holland. At 31, the artist was a witness to Tulipmania, the great Dutch speculative stock market frenzy and crash, 1620 - 1637.

Tulip History and Heritage

The first tulips were brought to Holland from Turkey in the mid-1500s and by the early 1600 were still rare, mostly found in university botanical gardens. Some locals, lusting after rare flowers grown at the University of Leiden botanical garden, stole some tulip bulbs and began cultivating them for sale. The tulips that "drove men mad” were multi-colored flowers with distinctive mottled streaks. No two were alike. During Tulipmania, these bulbs were traded as futures, sold sometimes hundreds of times over a single winter, while the bulbs were still in the ground, earning traders as much as $60,000 a month in today’s money! Prices finally collapsed in 1637, sending Holland and much of Europe into an economic depression. Tulipmania is still studied today, alongside the stock crash of 1929, as a classic example of a speculative market gone out of control.

The treasured rare bulbs actually were diseased plants. The streaks that gave the flowers their exotic looks were caused by a mosaic virus. Curiously, these long stemmed diseased varieties with broken colors were grouped together and called Rembrandt tulips.

Today, thanks to Holland’s professional hybridizers, tulips with the same exotic streaked coloration patterns are widely available. Though often sold as "Rembrandt” tulips, they are actually disease-free, genetically-stable look-alikes and are available from garden mail order firms.

Keukenhof Gardens

The most colorful feast for the eyes on a trip to Holland is the 70 acres of glorious blooming beauty of Keukenhof Gardens. For 8 weeks each year more than 7 million tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and other bulb flowers burst forth into the most dramatic displays of floral beauty you can find anywhere in the world. Leading Dutch bulb firms have created eye-catching displays of their best and newest varieties, mostly tulips of every size, color and form. Other flowers include various types of daffodils and fragrant hyacinths. You can easily identify the most appealing varieties and order them for delivery to your home at the correct planting time in the fall.

Keukenhof is an inspiration to everyone, especially avid gardeners who wish to transplant stunning new varieties into their home grounds. Keukenhof began in 1949 when the major of Lisse in cooperation with several eminent bulb grower and exporters developed the idea for an outdoor display of flowers that would give gardeners an idea of the wide range of flower bulbs available. Eventually other perennials, shrubs and trees were added. Today more than 100 businesses supply bulbs for the displays.

The name Keukenhof dates back to the park that was once part of the property of Jacoba of Bavaria, Countess of Holland, who lived from 1401 to 1436. She spent much time gathering herbs for her castle kitchen and the name Keukenhof actually means "kitchen garden”. Today it is the world’s most colorful, extensive and beautiful display of bulb flowers, well worth a trip during the peak flowering period b between mid-April and mid-May.

Theme gardens include those devoted to color, fragrance, the Renaissance, abstract style and borders. All are produced on small and simple scale so home gardeners can copy ideas for their home grounds. Many more details and exceptional pictures of these appealing gardens are at the website: The mailing address for literature is Keukenhof, P. O. Box 66, NL 2160 AB Lisse, Holland.


Once you have absorbed a day or more of Keukenhof’s blooming beauty, one other marvelous Dutch town deserves exploration. Maastricht is the oldest town in the Netherlands, which started out as a Roman garrison with trade routes to London, Cologne and Rome. In the 4th century a bishopric under St. Servaas bought the town great prestige and some of the landmarks date far back in town history. Once a rich cloth-producing city it has had a turbulent history under Austrian, Spanish and French control and finally under Dutch rule b y 1815.

Maasricht landmarks include the city’s Roman remains and rings of medieval fortifications, Romanesque arches and murals, French Gothic churches, indigenous Maasland Renaissance architecture, onion towers imported from the East and classic 17th century buildings favored by Dutch Calvinists. There are Baroque residences from the Louis XIV era but later in the 18th century, symmetry gave way to frenzied Rococo lines.

Holland offers some of the most dramatic contrasts in architecture from all major eras of early vintage through medieval to modern times. Whether you try a leisurely River Cruise that has shore excursions to the key historic and photogenic sites or prefer a different style trip, the Netherlands cities, landmarks, monuments, churches and the glorious Keukenhof Gardens are well worth your focus as you plan future vacations. Easy contact to the General Tours organization for Holland and many other tours is 1-800-858-0908.

River cruising, including the ups and downs of locks from rivers to canals and back has a distinct advantage. Holland is indeed a low country and you get to see much of it from a River Cruise ship as the Dutch have seen and traveled their country for centuries. Climb aboard and enjoy this distinctive, delightful country.

Best recommended "Rembrandt” type tulips:

Tulipa ‘Beauty of Volendam’ (Triumph Tulip) - Exceptionally elegant, a cream colored tulip with deep burgundy-rose feathering that flows upward from the base of each petal

Tulipa ‘Carnaval de Nice’ (Double Late Tulip) - Plump and multi-petaled with white petals marked in deep red

Tulipa ‘Flaming Parrot’ (Parrot Tulip) – Primrose yellow flowers flamed with blood red that mature to creamy white flamed with red. The petals of Parrot Tulips are ruffled and fringed along the edges with an exotic look reminiscent of the feathers of tropical birds

Tulipa ‘Ice Follies’ (Triumph Tulip) – A striking white tulip marked in bright red

Tulipa ‘Marilyn’ (Lily-flowered Tulip) - A bright white tulip with fuchsia flames that fan up pointed, slightly ruffled, petals

Tulipa ‘Mickey Mouse’ (Single Early Tulip) – Brilliant yellow flamed with blood red makes for vivid coloration on a small compact perfectly-shaped flower

Tulipa ‘Mona Lisa’ (Lily-flowered Tulip) – Primrose yellow flamed with deep berry-red feathering

Tulipa ‘Prinses Irene’ (Single Early Tulip) – Rich orange flamed with purple, fragrant, long blooming and resilient in the garden

Tulipa ‘Sorbet’ (Single Late Tulip) - White with raspberry-red flames.

Photo credits: Keukenhof Garden photo courtesy of Keukenhof Gardens; Forest at Clingendael, Delft Blue Earthenware, Hague Coat of Arms courtesy of The Hague Visitors & Convention Bureau; Maastricht Skyline courtesy of Raymond Friederichs.

Allan Swenson has been a nationally-syndicated garden and nature columnist for 25+ years and is the author of more than 55 published books. He enjoys capturing scenes from his travels to share with Senior Groups and Congregate Housing residents as colorful slide shows and writing about his travels.

Tags:  Delft  Holland  Holland in Bloom  Keukenhof Gardens  Venice of the North 

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