The past week has been the most “wintery” of the season in the Netherlands, and yet spring is already a twinkle in a Dutchman’s eye. The third Saturday of the new year is National Tulip Day, or Nationale Tulpendag.
I still have my Christmas tree up, but I joined more than 10,000 people at Dam Square in Amsterdam on January 16, 2016 for the chance to pick my own fresh (and free) tulips from temporary gardens. For Canadians, tulips in January is unthinkable, but this day marks the beginning of “Tulip Time,” 100 days of being able to find the Netherlands’ most popular spring flower everywhere.
It’s too early, of course, for scenic tulip fields and Keukenhof flower garden doesn’t even open until March 24th, 2016. But the Dutch are too crazy for tulips to care because the tulip has a long history in this country of being more than just a flower.
Tulips were so popular here in the mid-seventeenth century that they created the first economic bubble, known as “Tulip Mania.” In 1636, tulip bulbs were the fourth top export after gin, herring and cheese. Bulbs became so in demand, and in turn so expensive, that they were used as currency… until the tulip market crashed.
In WWII, tulip bulbs kept people from starving during the winter famine of 1944-1945 when allied forced failed to liberate the northern provinces. I was surprised to learn that actress Audrey Hepburn was just one of many who made tulip bulbs into flour to survive during this period (she has a white tulip named after her, by the way!). The old, dry bulbs were a last resort, but a source of nutrients and easy to cook.
It’s hard to believe that within the past 400 years, the humble tulip has been both priceless and worthless. It made and ruined the fortunes of men, and saved the lives of their ancestors hundreds of years later.
Back to National Tulip Day 2016, it took three trucks and 200,000 tulips to fill Dam Square. I arrived just after opening at one o’clock, but I was already late to the party. The rather disorganized, one-hour long line looped the Dam, and I feared the garden would be empty by the time I got in! Thousands of people walked by with tulips in hand, tulips in bags, tulips in strollers, and tulips on hats!
As it turned out, there were in fact tulips for everybody! I can’t describe how glorious it was to be outside, even with frozen toes, wet hands and a red nose, picking fresh, sweet-smelling tulips in January.
Haarlem has its own traditions of celebrating the tulip and the region’s bulb-growing history. Bloemencorso Week will take place April 20 to April 24, 2016. Despite the grey skies and frosty cobblestones outside, that’s only three months away! On April 23, a parade of floats made of flowers and bulbs will depart from Noordwijk and pass Keukenhof on its way to Haarlem, where they will be on display. The theme for Bloemencorso 2016 is “Flowers and Fashion.” These elaborate designs of tulips, daffodils and hyacinths are the very picture of spring in the Bollenstreek.
May the first tulips you see this year be colourful, fragrant, and soon!
This article has been previously published in http://www.travellingshus.com/blog/2016/1/16/january-tulips-for-everybody