The first Flower Bulbs

When you think of tulips, you automatically think of the Netherlands. Nevertheless, these plants originally came from central Asia. The Turks cultivated these flower bulbs long before the Dutch. But when the first tulip bulbs were planted in the Netherlands at the end of the sixteenth century, it wasn’t long before the tulip became famous. Professional growers foresaw a golden future for the plant, and a lively flower bulb trade developed. Tulips were even seen as solid investments, and this led to wild speculation – the time of the tulip craze, also known as tulip mania. Things got so out of hand that the government had to intervene. When this happened, the market in tulip trading collapsed within 24 hours.

And it’s not just the tulip that has come to the Netherlands from so far away. This is true of most of the bulbous plants cultivated here. Dahlias came from Mexico and the amaryllis (Hippeastrum) from South America. Freesias and calla lilies (Zantedeschia) originated in South Africa. But it was here in the Netherlands, with its fine climate and highly accomplished professionals, that flower bulb production developed into such an important industry. It was here that more and more new varieties with new forms and colours have been – and are still being - developed. A good example of this drive for innovation involved the attempts by Dutch growers to produce a truly black tulip. And with ‘Queen of Night’ and ‘Black Parrot’, they came very close to their goal.
Important factors in the successful growing of flower bulbs have always been research, professional expertise, the provision of information, and the exchange of knowledge. Obviously, the proper application of these factors has born fruit. The current range of flower bulbs in the Netherlands consists of flowers with practically every conceivable fragrance, colour and shape. Flower bulbs and the flowers they produce – the trademark of the Netherlands – are shipped to countless destinations throughout the world every year.

Increases in production

During the sixteenth century, commercial flower bulb cultivation was concentrated mostly around Haarlem. Later, flower bulb production spread mainly southward.
Today, this area that stretches between Haarlem and Leiden and in which the town of Lisse is the central location, has become known as the Bulb Region. Even now, although bulb cultivation has spread to other locations in the Netherlands over the years, most of the trading in flower bulbs still takes place in this region. The spring-flowering flower bulbs are cultivated mainly in the coastal provinces. Summer-flowering lilies and gladioli are however grown more in the eastern part of the Netherlands. And North Holland is by far the most important of the Dutch provinces when it comes to the production of flower bulbs.

Over the last decades, the number of hectares devoted to flower bulb production has increased dramatically: from 10,000 hectares in 1960 to more than 23,500 hectares in 2007. On the other hand, the number of growers has decreased. In 1960, there were 13,000 bulb growers while there are only 2000 in 2007. Meanwhile, the number of hectares per farming operation has increased: from an average of 1 hectares in 1960 to 12 hectares in 2007. These developments could not have taken place without the far-reaching improvements made in professional expertise and mechanisation as well as the resulting increases in scale that have taken place in production.
The flower bulb sector provides about ± 16.000 people with work. In addition to these are the seasonal workers called in to help every year during the labour-intensive summer, autumn and winter months.

Bulbs, corms, tubers, and rhizomes

Flower bulb production involves the cultivation of flower-producing bulbs, corms, tubers, and rhizomes. In true bulbs, nutritional reserves are stored in fleshy scales that are parts of the plants’ underground storage organs. Good examples of true bulbs are tulips, hyacinths, iris, lilies and narcissi. The other geophytes (the scientific name for all these plants with underground storage systems) have different types of storage organs. Good examples are gladioli and crocus (corms), dahlias (tubers) and certain iris (rhizomes).