Travel: Flower festivals - Go Dutch in Europe's finest kitchen garden

Keukenhof in Holland is the world's largest bulb-flower garden and a paean to the bloom that drives men mad.
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THINK OF tulips and you think of the Netherlands. When the Dutch think of tulips (bearing in mind that they have some 15,000 sq km of bulb fields netting about 1,330 million pounds worth of export trade), they think of Keukenhof near Lisse, about 45km south-west of Amsterdam.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the founding of Keukenhof, which literally means "kitchen garden". A group of prominent bulb growers established the site in 1949 to convert ordinary Dutch people to the joys of growing flowers from bulbs in their own gardens. Keukenhof is situated on an estate that once belonged to a 15th-century countess who used to grow herbs and vegetables for her dining table here - hence the name - and it is now deemed to be the world's largest bulb-flower garden. With 80 acres of tulips (some 6 million), daffodils, hyacinths, and other flowering bulbs, flowering scrubs, ancient trees and beautiful ponds and fountains, Keukenhof is referred to as the Spring Garden of Europe.

Strolling around the landscaped gardens is an absolute delight, even for those not interested in gardening and horticulture. Flower-beds glimmer with the sheer abundance of colour as each variety of tulip presents its spring-time blush and, nestled amongst the more common ones, are many of the rarest species.

Tulips originated in Asia in a belt that extends eastward from Ankara in Turkey, through Yerevan and Baku to Turkmenistan, along the Silk Route to Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, and on to the Pamir-Alai and Tien Shan Mountains in China's central-Asian province of Xinjiang. There are now about 120 naturally growing species spread throughout the Old World.

Ancient trade routes caused the tulip to spread its flowers westward, but tulips didn't arrive in Europe until bulbs were brought from Constantinople to Antwerp in 1562. Today, there are more than 5,500 different tulips listed in the Classified List and International Register of Tulip Names (published by the Royal General Bulbgrowers Association of the Netherlands).

As part of this year's show at Keukenhof, there will be: 10 changing indoor flower exhibitions or parades; seven themed gardens; a corn mill; and, for children, a special "Bollebozen" or "Whiz-kids" route through the gardens, a maze, animal pasture and play area. There will also be a music garden where you can enjoy smaller bulbflowers and trees to the sound of music.

If you're planning a visit, the 10 temporary flower exhibitions, or so- called parades, are: amaryllis, freesias and hyacinths from 26 March to 6 April; orchids from 26 March to 7 April; tulips and irises from 8 to 20 April; chrysanthemums from 29 April to 13 May; narcissi (daffodils) from 22 to 28 April; roses from 9 to 15 April; special bulbous plants from 30 April to 10 May; Alstroemeria Bouvardia from 17 to 27 April; lilies from 14 to 24 May; and carnations and summer-flowering plants from 15 to 24 May.

The Keukenhof Gardens are at Stationsweg, 166a, Lisse, and are open daily from 25 March to 19 May from 8am to 7.30pm. Try to arrive early to beat the tour buses.

Admission is pounds 18 for adults and pounds 9 for four to 12 year-olds. There are three restaurants on site and cash machines available. Wheelchairs and push-chairs are available free of charge. For further information, call 00 31 252 465 555 or email: info@keukenhof.nl. There is also a website at: www.keukenhof.nl

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