The White Tulip

After a long winter, Tara Thomas goes hunting for spring flowers in the Netherlands

By / April 2016

A white tulip in a glass filled with food coloring acts like a straw. It inhales the liquid, painting its petals with glossy hues. After a long German winter, I’m a pale, white tulip and my feet need to plunge into some color. Except for a few brave daffodils that have forced their way through the hard ground, the landscaped backyard of our rental home in Moers, Germany refuses to acknowledge that the first days of spring have come and gone.

It’s April now and I would give anything to pack away the bulky coats, boots, wool scarves, and woven mittens that have been our uniform for the last six months. But it’s 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and donning a pair of sandals and some capris pants would be utterly ridiculous. There is no need to trade in the winter tires, either. Snow is forecasted for next week. Many of the locals have fled for sun and warmth in Cyprus, Spain, or Portugal.

But a two-week vacation by the sea was not in our budget this year. Besides that, the beach says summer. No, I don’t need summer, not yet. I need the bright happy colors and fragrance of spring. One Mother’s Day, my husband surprised me with tulips. It was the day we piled in the car and drove from our home in Germany to Keukenhof, an enormous flower garden near Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Keukenhof is to flowers what Willy Wonka is to chocolate.

As my craving for the beauty of the blooms reached the point of desperation, I wondered if Keukenhof’s tulips were yet in season, hatching a plan in my frostbitten mind. We would dress up and take family photos, pack a picnic of baguettes and salami, and I would get an infusion of spring. The two and a half hour drive was pleasant. Changing countries within the European Union is easy. No hassle, no border patrol. Just a simple sign on the highway. The official name is (The Kingdom of) the Netherlands. But, two of the country’s twelve provinces make up the part of the Netherlands known to many people as Holland. Amsterdam, Haarlem, Rotterdam, and The Hague, as well as the flower fields and Keukenhof, are all located here.

The sun was shining and everyone was excited. We arrived around noon and parked at the back of the crowded lot. But the surrounding fields were not the brightly colored carpets of tulips I was expecting. They were not even green. It was cold. The wind cut right through my windbreaker and chilled my heart. Luckily, my perpetually prepared husband could sense my chill and dismay. He produced a big, goose-down coat for me to use, wrapping me in its warmth while offering a word of encouragement to soldier on.

Instead of piling back in our car and heading home, we fell in with the crowd and made our way to the park entrance. Keukenhof, literally, means Kitchen Garden. Hundreds of years ago this garden provided herbs for the castle kitchen of Dutch royalty. But now, the 79 acre property is Europe’s largest botanical garden. The Netherlands is one of the largest exporters of cut flowers in the world and its most popular flower is the tulip. This is why we think of tulips as Dutch flowers, even though they were originally Turkish wildflowers dating back to 1000 AD.

We entered the gates much like you would an amusement park and were greeted by a marching band. Young ladies dressed in traditional Dutch costumes posed for photos with guests and you could not mistake the mouth-watering smell of the mini puffed pancakes called poffertjes. Food, however, was the last thing on my mind. I looked past the fanfare to gaze upon color! The yellow of daffodils, the purple of crocuses, the white of lilies, the pink of hyacinths.

Signs pointed toward various attractions. We headed in the direction of the windmill and looked for tulips along the way. I could feel my pace quicken and a bounce returning to my step. All down the path, thousands of daffodils posed for photos. Their lemon heads were stunning from any angle.

The name “tulip” comes from the word tulipa, which means turban. The smooth petals really do resemble the fabric one might wrap around the head. In 1550, Sultan Suleyman of the Ottomon Empire, who is said to have had exquisite tulip gardens in Topkapi Palace, gave some tulip bulbs to Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, an ambassador from Vienna. The ambassador was interested in the medicinal possibilities of tulips, so he re-gifted the bulbs to a horticulturist in Holland named, Carolus Clusius to see what he could do with them.

We continued our search but were distracted as we went. Hedge labyrinths and banks of riotous blossoms had our heads spinning. Finally, a lookout tower at the end of the labyrinth provided a view of the tulip fields. They were completely bare. In spite of the beauty around me, my heart sank a little. My favorite flower was nowhere to be found. In every direction flowers popped out of the ground like Easter eggs yet I yearned for my springtime tulips. The air around us smelled like potpourri and Belgian waffles. We resisted the urge to buy some from a vendor and continued on.

At the Juliana Pavillion, we learned about how new species of tulips were created, as well as picked up a free treasure-hunt map for the kids. I already felt like we were on a treasure hunt for the elusive tulip beds. No matter how fevered my desire became, I could never be as desperate as some people were back in what was called the Golden Age.

In 1592, the aforementioned Dr. Clusius observed the breaking of a tulip bulb, a phenomenon caused by a virus that resulted in flamed and feathered varieties of tulips. These exquisite flowers were sought after by the extremely wealthy leading to the speculative frenzy of buying and selling tulip bulbs. Between 1630 and 1637 tulip bulbs were traded like stock as many as 20 times a day. Tulip Mania was a get-rich scheme that everyone wanted in on.

People would sell all they had to buy more tulip bulbs in hopes of making a big profit. At the height of this bubble, a single tulip bulb could be sold for as much as an entire estate or 10 years of a skilled worker’s wages. But like all bubbles, it eventually burst, and many people lost everything.

We walked toward the Wilhelmina building with its giant, tulip-themed sculptures, called White Bulbs. Here we found what we had been searching for: tulips. Glorious tulips in every direction. A rainbow of colors. Only a fraction of the 7 million that Keukenhof grows annually, but still, a feast for my eyes. A single tulip bulb may not have the money making potential it did in the Golden Age, but these tulips felt priceless to me.

As the boys climbed up a windmill, I gave into the smell of warm Stroopwaffel and enjoyed a bag as I took in my surroundings. At some point I had warmed up and began carrying the big coat, which seemed to get heavier as the hours passed. The ambassador from Vienna had hoped the Sultan’s tulips would have medicinal purposes. I think he was right. I am a white tulip, but thanks to the color infusion from Keukenhof, I’m not as pale as I was before.


Tara Thomas lives and writes in Germany.