From its somewhat humble beginnings as a 15th-century herb garden, the Keukenhof has become a world-renowned attraction, welcoming more than 800,000 visitors a year. That number of visitors is even more impressive when you consider that it’s only open for eight weeks a year! So what is the Keukenhof, how did it begin, and how did it become such a global phenomenon? To learn more about that, we must begin with tulip mania.
Tulip mania in the Netherlands
Tulips are associated with the Netherlands, but actually originated in the Tian Shan mountains in Central Asia. They made their way to Turkey, where sultans would have tulip parties in the spring, and then came to the Netherlands from there. The blooms gained a foothold in the Netherlands when botanist Carolus Clusius planted his collection of bulbs in Leiden in 1593. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that the bulbs weren’t troubled by the shitty Dutch weather.
Because their range of vibrant colors was unlike other flowers known in Europe at the time, demand for tulips increased. The Netherlands was a world power at the time, in art and commerce, and, as the Dutch Golden Age flourished, so did the tulip. They became popular subjects for paintings and festivals sprung up. Excitement kept building and in fact, by the early seventeenth century, demand for tulips was so fevered that they created the world’s first economic bubble. The value of tulip bulbs increased so much that at one point they worth the same as six (yes, six) ships. And then, in 1637 the bubble burst. Tulip Mania was over.
Despite this economic crash, tulips remained popular (they just weren’t worth the same as a fleet of ships). In the 1640s, Dutch tulip fields were doing a booming (yet reasonably priced) trade in tulips. The Netherlands top exports were gin, herring, and tulips. It doesn’t get more Dutch than that!
Meanwhile, at Teylingen Castle
The land that is now the Keukenhof was originally part of the estate of Teylingen Castle. The grounds were used mostly for hunting. However, in the 15th century, Countess Jacoba van Beieren added a small garden near the kitchen, where she could harvest herbs. This became known as the ‘Keukenhof’ (Kitchen courtyard).
Landscape architects Jan David Zocher and his son Louis Paul Zocher, who also designed Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, redesigned the castle gardens in 1857. That park, in the English landscape style, still constitutes the basis of Keukenhof.
Keukenhof, the ‘Garden of Europe’
Halfway through the 20th century a confab of 20 bulb growers and exporters devised a plan to use the Keukenhof estate to show off spring blooms. In 1950, Keukenhof opened to the public. It was an instant success.
While to the casual visitor, it appears to be an overwhelming display of floral colors, Keukenhof is simultaneously an international showcase for the Dutch floricultural industry. The 7 million bulbs which are planted each year are a type of living catalog for the 100 participating companies who supply them. What’s more, 500 flower merchants create the ever-popular displays of cut flowers and potted plants.
Over its history, more than 50 million people have come to tulip-gaze, and each annual display is centered around one impressive theme. In 2017 it was Dutch Design, in 2016 it was The Golden Age, and this year, the 69th edition of Keukenhof, the theme is Romance in Flowers.