The complete guide to Floral Holland

There's more to floral Holland than tulips in Amsterdam. Today sees the start of the fifth Floriade Flower Festival, a huge horticultural exhibition that takes place every 10 years. Alison Bone presents her green-fingered guide


TULIPS FROM AMSTERDAM?

Tulips from Amsterdam?

No. Tulips originated in Persia. During the 1500s, merchant sailing vessels were travelling the world, regularly returning with exotic species of plants. The Dutch soon gained international recognition for their high standards of horticulture. Then in the late 16th century, Dutch diplomats who had been on a mission to Turkey brought back an exotic bloom that was to capture the imagination of the people. It was the tulip.

In Turkey, the flower was so popular that Turkish Sultans held annual festivals incorporating half a million blooms. The rule of Ahmed the third from 1703-1730 has been designated by historians as the "Tulip Era". In her book, The Tulip, the Independent's gardening writer Anna Pavord says, "The Sultan was completely ruled by the vagaries of his favourite flower, but his passion for tulips eventually led to his downfall. His subjects rose in revolt against him, because of the vast amount of money he spent each year on his extravagantly staged tulip festivals."

In 1593, a botanist named Carolus Clusius planted the first tulip bulbs in a small garden at the University of Leiden, in the province of South Holland, laying the foundation for a booming flower business. It is still possible to visit the Hortus Botanicus (00 31 71 527 7249), the oldest botanical gardens in Holland, where you will find carnivorous plants form Borneo, orchids and passionflowers and an 18th-century orangery. A wide range of exhibitions, concerts and workshops are on offer. For further information contact hortus@hortus.leidenuniv.nl

What was Tulipmania?

A garden full of tulips soon became an indication of wealth and prestige. By the 1630s, their popularity had spread to ordinary people, who were able to buy the flowers in village markets. Rising demand for designer blooms reached fever pitch. A futures market developed in crops that were not yet grown. Family fortunes were made and lost in the speculative frenzy that gripped Holland. As prices went sky-high, politicians attempted to ban the tulip. At the height of tulipmania in 1636, a trader could earn 60,000 florins a month (that's about £30,000 in today's money).

In one transaction, a single bulb was traded for "Two loads of wheat; four loads of Rye; four fat oxen, eight fat swine; twelve fat sheep; two hogsheads of wine; four barrels of beer; two barrels of butter; 1000 pounds of cheese; a marriage bed with linens and a sizeable wagon to haul it all away". The Netherlands was gripped by tulip hysteria until 1637, when the bottom suddenly dropped out of the market. Nowadays the flowers are still the nation's favourite, but prices are much more down to earth.

Why are the Dutch so keen on flowers?

Anna Pavord puts it down to the weather. "On a grey sunless day when a northeasterly wind is whipping the skin off the back of your knuckles, nothing cheers the heart more than a bunch of tulips, weaving and bending in their vase like a flock of inquisitive birds." Almost half of Holland's 34,000 square kilometres are covered in bulbfields and the trade is worth an estimated £1,330m. But there is more to floral Holland than tulips. These days The Netherlands grows more than half of the worlds' pot plant exports and cut flowers. Every day about 17 million flowers and two million plants are sold at the Aalsmeer Flower Auction – the biggest trading building in the world (00 31 297 392 185, Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer, Legmeerdijk 313 Aalsmeer). Visitors are welcome to watch the action between 7.30am-11am Monday to Friday.

The Dutch are fanatical about flowers and there is always some floral event or other going on. Flower parades or "corsos" are held every year, each with its own history. The biggest is the Bloemencorso (00 31 252 434 710) which features 20 large floats, decorated cars and marching bands. This year's parade starts at 9.30am on Saturday 20 April at Noordwijk, south-west of Amsterdam, and travels north to Haarlem, arriving at 8.30pm. Floats are decked out with more than 1.5 million hyacinths as well as thousands of narcissus and other flowers. Thousands of spectators line the roads and the floats are illuminated in Haarlem, remaining on view until Sunday night.

The town of Haarlem has long been associated with arts and culture and has a medieval air. There are more than 1,000 protected monuments in the historic centre and it was the birthplace for many important Dutch artists, such as Frans Hals. You can visit the Frans Hals Museum at 62 Groot Heiligland, Haarlem (00 31 23 511 5775). One of the reasons this region was chosen to host Floriade was its location. Amsterdam, with its multitude of sights, is only 15 minutes by train. It is also close to some of the major horticultural centres such as Aalsmeer, Boskoop and Westland. The beach and seaside resorts of Zandvoort and Bloemendaal are just a few kilometres away. In May you can attend the flower days in Breezand in North Holland (00 31 223 522 727), when flower mosaics are laid out through the village and the streets and bridges are adorned with thousands of blooms.

On the first Saturday of September there is a floral parade from Aalsmeer to Amsterdam (00 31 297 325 100). In the evening the illuminated floats drive through Zaanstad. On the Sunday the floats are part of the Parade Show in the halls of the Aalsmeer Flower Auction.

But this year is special...

The Floriade Flower Festival is the world's largest horticultural exhibition, and takes place once every decade. Floriade 2002 is located at Haarlemmermeer, a low-lying patch of land near Schiphol airport. Held on an enormous 65-acre site and designed by the landscape architect Niek Roozen, it runs from 6 April to 15 October. More than 300 exhibits from 29 countries will be on display with up-to-date design ideas and millions of breathtaking blooms.

There is more to Floriade than just flowers. The festival acts as a showcase for everything from flowers to bulbs and plants, to mushrooms, trees, bushes and shrubs.

The theme of this year's festival is "Feel the Art of Nature" and the aim of the organisers is to focus on the enjoyment of nature, while stressing the importance of creating an eco-friendly, sustainable living environment. The park is divided into three areas, each with its own character and atmosphere.

What will i see?

The "On the Lake" section of the park occupies the northern part of the Haarlemmermeerse Forest and takes nature as its theme. You can wander along winding paths through dense woodland; unwind in the Dream Garden of Peace and Relaxation or re-energise in the Dynamic Garden of Force and Energy. There are displays from China, Indonesia and Japan, including an exotic island kingdom and Thai Pavilion. In the Valley of the Flowers there are one million blooms and the largest collection of water lilies ever brought together in one place.

And then there's modern art

The landscape is dominated by Spotters Hill, a 100-foot high pyramid which has taken two years to create. This is the central feature of the By the Hill section of the park and it commands spectacular views of the festival and surroundings. Ten islands, laid out in geometric patterns surround the hill. This area combines a variety of concepts for future living, in which high-density living quarters are integrated with garden designs and landscapes in a "green city". The focus is on the latest green trends and the theme of sustainability. Homes of the future are built amid wildlife, hanging gardens and floating water gardens.

Innovative works of art are scattered through the park. The artist Cees Elffers has placed a number of trees under house-arrest with giant balls and chains. There will also be many live performances by various artistes.

So how big is it?

The bright yellow solar roof, which can be seen from miles around, provides all the energy for the park while Floriade is taking place. It features more than 19,000 solar panels – the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. Picture four football pitches and you get an idea of the size of the place. The 30,000 square metre exhibition space is supposed to be the glasshouse of the future. The sub-tropical environment houses 30 different exhibitions, including exotic plants from Colombia and Ecuador as well as olive trees, vines and fruit trees.

How do I get there?

Tickets for Floriade are available in the UK from the Floriade Call Centre (0870 720 2002) and cost £13, which includes a £2 booking fee. Floriade is a 10-minute shuttle bus ride from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport (show your admission ticket for a free ride). Buses also run from the railway stations in Hoofddorp and Haarlem. Tickets can be bought at the entrance to Floriade, price €17 (£10.40) The gates open daily from 9.30 am to 7pm. For further information visit www.floriade.com or call the Netherlands Board of Tourism (020-7539 7950).

P&O North Sea Ferries (0870 129 6003, www.ponsf.com) is offering mini-packages from £69 per person, departing from Hull. The price includes two nights on board the ferry and a day's visit to Floriade. Stena Line (08705 747 474, www.stenalinehols.co.uk) has packages from £105 in July and August, which includes the ferry crossing, a one-day pass to Floriade, and two nights' accommodation in the Hague.

Travelsphere holidays (01858 410 818, www.travelsphere.com) offers five-day coach tours from £149 which include a day at Floriade and optional tours of Amsterdam and Giethoorn.

Wallace Arnold Holidays (0800 092 0102, www.wallacearnold.com) has five-night tours of Holland, including entrance to Floriade and a visit to the Keukenhof gardens and Amsterdam from £259.

With direct links from 20 UK airports, Schiphol airport is cheap and easy to reach on British Airways (0845 77 333 777), BMI (0870 60 70 555, www.flybmi.com), easyJet (0870 600 0000, www.easyJet.com) and KLM UK (08705 074 074, www.klmuk.com). But bus, Eurolines (01582 404 511, www.eurolines.com) has fares from £39 return.

If you would like to drive through France, SeaFrance (01303 223 377 www.seafrance.com) has a special offer on its Dover-Calais crossings – with returns from £89 if you book and pay before 10 April.

A return trip with Eurostar (08705 186 186, www.eurostar.com), changing at Brussels, will cost £85 if you book two weeks in advance.

Any other horticultural attractions?

Holland is full of gardens, which isn't surprising, for a nation of garden-lovers. Seventeen botanical gardens are spread across the country. In Amsterdam you can visit De Plantage (Middenlaan 2a Amsterdam) which contains 6,000 species of plants, including palm trees, cacti and herbs. Keukenhof Gardens (00 31 252 465 555, www.keukenhof.nl) in Lisse is home to nearly seven million plants and can justly claim to be "the flower attraction of Holland". From March to May, spring bloomers, including tulips, daffodils, narcissi and hyacinths dominate the landscape. If you visit in late summer you will find a profusion of begonias, dahlia and lilies. The gardens can easily be visited in a day-trip from Haarlem or Amsterdam. Many of the plants are grown for the bulbs, not the blooms, and huge cutting-machines can be seen chomping through the flowers – a traumatising sight for ardent flower-lovers.

What about parks?

Hoge Velevue in the province of Gelderland in eastern Holland, is the country's largest national park, covering 5,500 hectares in a mix of forests, shifting sands and moorland. The area is rich in wildlife, including red deer and wild boar. Bicycles are provided free of charge while in the park. Inside the park is the Kroller-Muller Museum which houses 278 works by Van Gogh. Europe's largest sculpture garden is also here and combines a peaceful blend of nature and art, featuring work by Moore, Giacometti and Paolozzi. Hortusbolborum (00 31 72 505 2981) is a living museum of bulb flowers in the town of Limmen. The patchwork-planted fields preserve the gene pools for use by modern hybridizers and include the original hybrids of the first bulbs brought to the Netherlands.

A number of tour operators run botanical tours in Holland, such as Crusader Holidays (01255 425 453, www.crusader-holidays.co.uk) which offers a five-day tour of Dutch Bulbfields, Old Holland and Amsterdam from £249. Travelsphere (01858 410 818, www.travelsphere.co.uk) offers a four-day Dutch bulbfields and Valkenburg coach tour. Prices start at £139.

What if I suffer from hayfever?

If your sneezes get the better of you, then get out of the fresh air and into a museum and take a look at some of the paintings of flowers for which the Dutch are famous. During the 17th century real blooms were very expensive and short-lived and many people preferred to buy paintings of flowers and bouquets. The Dutch artists captured the magic of these exotic blooms, often weaving rich symbolism into their paintings. Tulips and art became so intertwined that a whole class of tulips became known as "Rembrandt tulips", although Rembrandt himself was not known for floral work.

While many, such as Van Gogh's famous Sunflowers, were realistic depictions, others showed wild arrangements of exotic varieties which would never have flowered at the same time. Artists such as Jan Brueghel wowed the royal houses of Europe with his depictions of delicate bouquets. His patron, Cardinal Federico Borromeo of Milan, reflected, "When winter encumbers and restricts everything with ice", he could still enjoy the colours of painted flowers which were "stable and very endurable". Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder and his three sons were the most prolific floral painters of the period.

The following museums contain collections of these floral paintings: Stedelijk Museum, Paulus Potterstraat 13 Amsterdam (00 31 20 573 2911, www.stedelijk.nl); Van Gogh Museum, Paulus Potterstraat 7 Amsterdam (00 31 205 705 200, www.vangoghmuseum.nl); Rijksmuseum Stadhoudserskade 42, Amsterdam (00 31 20 674 7000, www.rijksmuseum.nl); Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen, Museum park 18-20 3015 CX Rotterdam, (00 31 10 441 9400, www.boijmans.rotterdam.nl).

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