Tulip time in Holland

Centuries ago, the gardeners working for the Countess of Holland, Jacoba van Beieren, were probably harvesting cabbages and herbs in the very place where I sat on the edge of a pond in the Netherlands' famous Keukenhof. In the 15th century, this was the great lady's kitchen garden, a vital resource for Teylingen Castle where entertaining during the hunting season was a daily occurrence.

Today, 600 years later, the Countess's kitchen garden has been supplanted by drifts of tall, elegant tulips, brilliantly colored hyacinths, a golden rain of forsythias, crocuses, fritillarias, and dozens of other spring bulbs. In shaded dells, yellow trout lilies and cowslips flourish in an informal woodland setting. Trees heavy with spring blossoms, ponds with fountains, and a corn windmill with gently turning blades draw several million visitors to this garden each year. Keukenhof (or "kitchen garden"), with an annual planting of 7 million bulbs, is reputedly the largest bulb garden in the world.

On a balmy day in April, I had discovered not only an exceptional garden but a garden with pizazz. Just a few feet from my seat, as I enjoyed a lavish helping of Dutch waffles soaked in syrup, a traditional barrel organ belted out an old-time melody that enticed passersby to dance.

A small black girl with a peppercorn hairdo executed an imaginative dance routine in front of an admiring audience. Flinging constraint to the wind, two older women replicated dance steps of the past as they cavorted, as uninhibited as teenagers, to the music of the barrel organ. A Maurice Chevalier lookalike swung his cane in the air and twirled it boisterously as he, too, danced by.

Just days before, I stood on the edge of a bulb field adjoining Keukenhof, gazing across a vast, striped floral extravaganza of multicolored tulips, yellow daffodils, and dazzling blue, pink, and mauve hyacinths.

A young Frenchwoman nearby turned in my direction. Breathing in the heavy sweet perfume that literally overwhelmed one's olfactory senses, she kissed the tips of her bunched fingers in a familiar gesture of appreciation. We visitors were - one and all - captivated by the essence of spring.

The tulip arrived in the Netherlands from Turkey in the mid-16th century. It is Holland's "national" flower and, in time, became a most volatile investment.

Within 100 years of rooting in Dutch soil, the value of certain tulip bulbs had soared. Semper Augustus, a deep scarlet tulip streaked with white-hot flames spreading from the flower's base to the tips of its curled petals, was valued at 4,000 euros at today's exchange rate (about $5,100). These elegant blooms were featured in Alexandre Dumas's classic novel, "The Black Tulip." They were also the focus for severalpainters of the period, including Rembrandt and Hans Bollongier.

As far back as the 11th century, Persian and Turkish sultans had already succumbed to the charms of the tulip. Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, even had tulips embroidered on his underwear. Because the flower was central to his vision of an earthly paradise, he planted them lavishly in his formal garden, as did many of his cohorts.

Since then, there has been no dimming of the flower's popularity. Tulips of every color and configuration form the basis of Keukenhof's floral treasure. About 2,000 varieties of tulips are on display this season.

I have always savored "art in the park," and my favorite piece in Keukenhof was a metal sculpture entitled "Op Uitskuik" (On the Lookout) - an amusing and vigilant chorus of angelic "ribbeting" frogs by Dutch artist Jean Pierre Belaen.

In a 50,000-square-foot area of enclosed pavilions, each named after a member of the Dutch royal family, there is one devoted entirely to an exotic jungle of orchids. In the 70-acre open-air garden, visitors can wander through the Beukenlaan (an avenue of beech trees), explore the Japanese Garden and the Music Garden, and marvel at the ancient flower varieties in the Historical Garden. In the latter, the gardeners are dressed in authentic costumes of the Middle Ages.

Keukenhof now serves as an exhibition site for 90 Royal Warrant Holders, representing the country's premier bulb merchants. Together they propagate nearly 9 billion flower bulbs each year. Seventy percent of the world's bulbs emanate from these shores. For one of the smallest countries in Europe, that constitutes an astonishing abundance of beauty.

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