The article below was published in Pinnable’s newsletter in .

Icons of Holland

Tulips and the Keukenhof

Tulips, like windmills and cheese, are iconic to the Netherlands, but originally they were an Ottoman invention. Augier Ghislain de Busbecq, who served as the Habsburg ambassador to the court of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent from 1554 to 1562, gave a bunch of bulbs & seeds to his friend Carolus Clusius, who introduced the tulip to the Low Countries in 1593, after he was appointed prefect of the newly established Botanical Garden in Leiden. It is said that Clusius laid the foundations for the Dutch tulip bulb industry, but it’s probably more appropriate to credit the anonymous thieves who stole his bulbs from his garden and introduced them to the farmers who lived just behind the dunes, where the sandy soil proved to be perfect for growing tulips.

Tulips at the Keukenhof
Tulips at the Keukenhof

The tulip season runs from the end of March until mid-May, and the flowers are usually at their best halfway through April. To the north of Leiden, in the Bollenstreek region, you will find endless tulip fields in striking colours, and all trains from Amsterdam via Haarlem to The Hague run straight through them, in under fifteen minutes. Of course it is also possible to enjoy the tulips, daffodils & hyacinths at Zimmer speed, at the Keukenhof in Lisse, a lovely garden featuring seven million bulb flowers. Open during the first months of spring only, the Keukenhof can be easily reached from Leiden and Haarlem by bus (or bicycle). Out of season, avoid the Bollenstreek at all costs, for it’s a most desolate wasteland when not blossoming or blooming.

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Apart from introducing tulips to the Low Countries, the French botanist Charles de L’Écluse (1526–1609), best known by the Latin version of his name, Carolus Clusius, also planted the first potato, which he named Papas Peruanorum, in Dutch soil, but is was not until the 18th century that potatoes were used for human consumption in the Netherlands.


Tulips initially roused mostly scientific interest, but from around 1630 on tulips became attractive financially, to such an extent that this created the world’s first recorded economic bubble. The price of the most coveted tulip variety, Semper Augustus, went up from ƒ 1,200 in 1623 to ƒ 5,500 in 1633 and, in the month before the bulb market collapsed, ƒ 10,000 in 1637 — for that kind of money one could buy a fashionable canal house in Amsterdam at the time. But, contrary to popular belief, there weren’t that many people involved and the economic repercussions were pretty minor.


From the time of Süleyman the Magnificent, cultivation of the tulip had become a celebrated practice in the Ottoman Empire. As in the Dutch Republic a century earlier, an escalating demand for tulips in the elite’s palaces and gardens, made prices peak in 1727, and the state had to intervene by issuing an official price list. Too late, as it turned out: Mr & Mrs Taxpayer didn’t really appreciate all the pomp of the Tulip Age, and in 1730 an anti-tulip rebellion broke out in Istanbul, which forced Sultan Ahmed III to abdicate after repeated clashes between his royal gardeners and members of the public.