Want to tiptoe through the tulips? Head for Holland.

With 7 million flowering bulbs, Keukenhof reigns supreme in the horticulture world.

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Ever since the first tulips arrived in the Netherlands in 1593, enchanting the nation and setting off "tulipmania," these colorful blooms have reigned supreme in this flat, fertile land.

Today, nowhere is the love affair with genus Tulipa more dazzlingly displayed than at Keukenhof gardens, 30 minutes southwest of Amsterdam in the heart of the Netherlands' renowned bulb district.

Keukenhof bills itself as the world's largest flower garden. Seven million flowering bulbs - 7 million! - carpet 80 acres of wooded parkland. From March to May, more than 12,000 visitors a day meander along nine miles of winding paths, clicking cameras and exclaiming over the profusion of tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils artfully planted among shade trees, flowering shrubs, and manicured lawns.

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It all adds up to a Dutch masterpiece, botanic-style. No wonder superlatives abound here.

Fountains arc skyward and splash softly in pools as swans glide by. With seven themed gardens, a maze, sculptures, weekend musical programs, restaurants, and a children's play area, Keukenhof offers a something-for-everyone approach.

At the edge of the gardens stands another classic symbol of Holland, a wooden windmill. For a panoramic view of neighboring bulb fields, climb the steps and stroll around the circular platform. Ribbons of floral color stretch to the horizon.

In the 15th century, this property consisted of woods and dunes. It also formed part of the vast estate of the Countess of Holland, Jacoba van Beieren. Because she gathered herbs here for the castle's kitchen, the area came to be known as Keukenhof, or "kitchen garden."

About1850, two well-known horticultural architects, a father and son, modeled the grounds after an English landscape garden. A century later, in 1949, the mayor of nearby Lisse joined with prominent bulb growers to create a showcase for Dutch flowers.

This year marks the 52nd spring exhibition. Last spring the gardens drew 800,000 visitors. (Take heed: Grounds and pavilions can get very crowded. If possible, try to arrive early in the day.)

Flower lovers unable to be here for the blazing glory of the spring gardens have a second chance: the summer show in August and September. Then dahlias, gladioluses, roses, begonias, and lilies play starring roles. Created in 1999 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Keukenhof, the summer exhibit attracts fewer people - 60,000 visitors last year.

To keep gardens blooming continually during the nine-week spring season, groundskeepers use an innovative three-layer system of planting. They place latest-blooming bulbs deepest in the soil, then earlier-blooming varieties above them. Crocuses go on top.

Bulbs are allowed to bloom for only one season. Then gardeners dig them up and replace them with new ones - a precaution against any possible bulb virus. Landscape artists also redesign flower beds each year.

When skies turn drizzly, visitors can take refuge in enclosed glass pavilions, some of them named after Dutch royals. Here richly varied displays of cut flowers change weekly. These range from huge sprays of lilies and orchids to narcissus, freesias, hyacinths, and irises.

While inside, green thumbs can also order bulbs of favorite specimens for gardens at home. These will be shipped in the fall, ready for planting.

All this activity - the bustle of restaurants and sales areas, not to mention the tour buses lined up in the parking lot - can occasionally give Keukenhof a slightly too-commercial feel.

But an antidote is only steps away: Just head back to the gardens to enjoy another look at the spectacular floral artistry and take another whiff of fragrant blooms.

It's a perfect reminder of why flowering bulbs captured the hearts of the Dutch four centuries ago, and captivate the rest of us today.

IF YOU GO

During spring 2001, Keukenhof will be open daily from March 22 to May 24, 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (Ticket office closes at 6 p.m.)

The summer exhibit is open daily from Aug. 2 to Sept. 16, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

By car, Keukenhof is approximately 30 minutes southwest of Amsterdam, just off the Amsterdam/Rotterdam autobahn. Trains leave from Amsterdam's Centraal Station. Buses leave from central bus stops directly in front of either Centraal Station or the main terminal at Schiphol Airport.

For more information, write Keukenhof, Postbus 66, 2160 AB Lisse, Netherlands, telephone 011-31-252-465-555, e-mail info@keukenhof.nl, or see the website, www.keukenhof.nl.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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