How the Dutch sold Canada on tulips
We took tulips for granted until Queen Juliana’s present of thousands of bulbs turned Ottawa into a gardener’s heaven. Now we’re planting them by the million every year
F or the last two weeks in May a stretch of pavement known as the Driveway, meandering for thirtythree miles through and around Ottawa, will present the most colorful road show in North America, the biggest, brightest public display of spring flowers on the continent. For these two weeks Ottawa becomes the tulip capital of the world, at least in the publicity of the Ottawa Board of Trade.
The board exaggerates; the Keukenhof garden at Lisse in Holland contains more tulips of wider variety. But although the Dutch are not reluctant to brag of the Keukenhof they are most unlikely to carp at Ottawa. For it was the Queen of the Netherlands who put Ottawa’s show on the road, and the Dutch are its best press agents.
When Queen Juliana went home to Holland in 1945 after a wartime exile in Ottawa she sent back a thank-you gift of twenty thousand tulip bulbs, pledging sixteen thousand more every year of her life. Dutch growers gave another hundred thousand bulbs. It was a grateful gesture to the people whose troops had helped liberate them; it was also shrewd business. The gifts inspired the noted landscape architect Edward Wood, of the Federal District Commission, to create the unique flower show now used as a focal point by the Dutch in their campaign to make Canadians flower-conscious.
Wood had been yearning to up-date Ottawa's parks. Out went the work of gardeners trained on estates in pre-war Europe, geraniums in beds the shape of stars and crescents. In went the tulip bulbs, fifty thousand in one bed, clear solid colors massed in a bold and flowing line, banked at the curves to quickly catch the eye, the first flower display designed to be seen from a car window.
Edward Kelly. Commissioner of U. S. National Parks, sent five men to look at the Ottawa experiment. Tourists tarried to ogle the vivid vistas ot tulips and daffodils. The Board of Trade in 1953 launched its Tulip Festival (this year's date: from May 19 to 25) and by 1958 Ottawa, which in 1950 was fifth among Canadian tourist attractions, was runner-up to the all-time champion, Niagara Falls.
No other Canadian city has set out to emulate Ottawa's extravagant display, although the Chatham. Ont., municipal council is flirting with the notion ot a tulip build-up to challenge the capital's. Toronto's Queen's Park and Vancouver’s Stanley Park are both brave with small but locally celebrated stands ot tulips each spring, and the Niagara Parks Commission plants thousands in parks all over the Niagara peninsula.
The man the Dutch hired to win tulips this growing place in the Canadian landscape is an Ottawa photographer named Malak Karsh. He is a sad shy-eyed man who learned his trade in the darkroom of his famous brother, Yousuf Karsh, but later dropped his surname and now answers only to Malak. His tulip-boosting color photographs— tulips with Mounties, kids, kittens, snow, pretty girls —appear every year on dozens of magazine covers. He sends gardening articles and photographs to newspapers and donates Dutch bulbs as garden-contest prizes.
Although Dutch bulb growers foot all the bills for this flurry of propaganda they're paying, willynilly, to help make a livelier market for Canadian bulbs as well as imports. In this case helping their competitors bothers them little; the Pacific coast is the only section of Canada with a suitable climate for growing tulip bulbs in commercial quantities, and the amount of land available there for bulb culture is small. About sixty-five growers are banded into the B. C. Bulb Growers Federation. They sold five million bulbs last year, of which 1.75 million were tulips. But their variety of tulip strains is limited, and though they are selling more bulbs every year they’re not a threat to Dutch domination of the trade.
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How the Dutch sold Canada on tulips
“Plant them right side up; you can’t go wrong”
Theoretically the pre-eminence of Dutch bulbs is based as much on variety as quantity, but this may be a nicety most amateurs ignore. "Home gardeners don't usually buy tulips by thenbreed," observes Theodore Zellernth, who is the manager of Ontario's largest Dutch bulb importer house. “In Canada at least they buy them by their color. Red tulips are most popular, then white.”
It follows, Zellernth says, that the most popular tulip of all with Canadians has long been the Red Emperor, an early-blooming Hower with a huge brilliant blossom. This taste may be changing; the Dale Estate at Brampton, Ont., which is known for its roses but also sells a million imported bulbs a year (and force-grows another two million to sell on the cut-flower market) sold more William Pitt bulbs this year than any other breed. The Pitt is a red member of a group known as Darwin hybrids, whose great size and convenient blooming date—the first two weeks in May— make them the most popular group of bulbs here.
Darwins arc also the easiest bulbs to grow, but all tulips are hardy plants. “They just come up natural.” importer Zellernth says. “You can't go wrong if you plant them right side up.”
Zellernth and his Dutch colleagues have managed to sell more tulips to Canadians every year for a decade. Canada is now Holland’s sixth largest market for bulbs, and in bulbs-per-person we’re her third best customer. Last year this added up to a million and a half dollars worth of bulbs, according to the Dutch, but the sober figures of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics list our total expenditure at $600,000. Whichever figure is correct, this means we're setting out millions of Dutch bulbs every year. All of them—as well as the lion's share of all the tulips planted each year anywhere in the world — come from a fifty-mile strip of North Sea coast between The Hague and Alkmaar in the Netherlands.
In April and early May this is the flower garden of Europe; tens of thousands tour the blossom belt on foot, by bicycle, bus, canal boat and helicopter. The fields are riotous with color —some reds so intense in the sunlight that workers stripping the blossoms (so their strength drains into the bulbs) are blinded, temporarily but painfully.
"Now comes the important time,” says Walter Roozen, harried, hustling advertising director of Holland's Associated Bulb Growers, whose family has grown bulbs for three centuries. Now the bulb is forming, deep in its fleshy layers, a (lower in miniature.
July is the time for lifting the bulbs, for cleaning, drying and storing. In August they're shipped; Canadian plant inspectors, their expenses paid by the Dutch, rush up and down Bulbland, as the strip of growing country is called, okaying consignments that once were held up for days on Canadian piers. Then the bulbmen fan out around the world, stolid practical salesmen peddling a highly impractical product, the luxury they have made a necessity. Once they sold only to British mansions and French chateaux. Now every Canadian home owner is a target. In a hundred countries they sell three billion bulbs a year for a hundred million gardens; in Toronto alone there are a hundred Dutch firms competing.
The variety of strains they offer is bewildering. The Dutch breed new flower styles as the French set feminine fashions. Every week all summer long, in a garden at Hillcgom in front of the million-guilder Bulb Exchange, breeders unveil a half dozen new creations, “novelties.” Exporters and growers try to gauge their sales appeal. If they all like the same flower its price will double, triple, quadruple by day’s end.
One shrewd buy, with a lot of luck, can set a man up for life. In 1904 a venturesome plant hunter, Joseph Haberhauer, led an expedition into the Samarkand mountains to collect rare wild red tulips for van Tubergen, a bulb firm in Haarlem. Here, Dirk Lefeber, a young and aggressive grower, saw them and bought some. One flower in particular obsessed him. "The most elegant shape and best color I have seen,” he describes it. In twelve years he had fifty beds, and over the next few years, using ingenuity as a salesman, his bulb sales made him rich. Later the van Tubergen firm, too, hit the jackpot with the bulbs that the firm kept, bulbs known now as Red Emperor, the all-time Canadian favorite and probably the most famous of all tulips.
Even for an expert, breeding a new strain is tricky. The flower’s shape must be perfect, its petals thick so they won't wilt. Its color must be sunproof. Its stem must be sturdy, its foliage narrow to limit the space it takes up. It must force well—bloom early when grown inside. It must produce—beget plenty of saleable offspring. Finally, it must be better in some way than any existing variety. A breeder needs an artist’s color sense, a midwife’s instincts, and the long-suffering patience of a nursemaid.
"It's a crazy business,” a highly reputed breeder named Bram Warnaar told me. “Our flowers have been crossed so often you never know what comes up. You cross a white with a black, you may get a yellow. Maybe that is its grandfather’s characteristics showing up. Or its great - grandfather's. Who knows?"
"Who sets styles?" I asked.
“You’re asking me? Maybe the fashion merchants in Paris have something to do with it. You pick up the paper and see the craziest-looking things. I tell my wife, 'I hope you don't buy something like that.’ A few weeks later she is wearing it. Maybe the crazier women’s styles are the more crazy flowers can be.”
Sometimes nature will cross a fashionable new breed where skill fails. “One Saturday morning a few years ago." Warnaar told me, "1 came on my farm with the wages to pay the men. They were taking the heads (plucking the blooms) off Whiteley Gem, a single-cup narcissus, very pale. I said to the foreman, ‘Wait a moment!’ Here was one with a full double orange cup. If I hadn’t been on the spot we might not have got it.”
Last year an American importer, scouring Holland for new flowers, spotted this new narcissus, Royal Orange, and bought Warnaar’s entire 1958 crop in advance.
Royal Orange is a mutation, “a sport” which is one of Nature’s mysterious whims. Parrots are sports: freakish, frivolous, feathered tulips with notoriously weak stems; the Dutch call them "monstrosities.” One day in 1900 one was found with a rigid stem. It earned the Noordwijk firm of de Graaff a hundred thousand guilders. Any mutation of a standard is money in the bank. A black tulip will make its finder’s fortune overnight.
Some growers produce their own sports by injecting bulbs with poison. And bulbman Nick Blokker tells of a friend, now dead, Dr. W. F. de Mol: “I remember the Doctor saying to me thirty years ago, ‘Why do you find, in hundreds of thousands of red tulips, one that is white? I think it must be that cosmic rays change the order of the chromosomes. Why can't we imitate this?’ And he did. FIc bombarded tulips and hyacinths with X-rays. The City of Amsterdam gave him a laboratory and ten assistants and he would plant his mutations in my fields.” Blokker looked out his window. Snow was falling though it was spring. “Even on days like this I could not get him in for coffee.”
I asked who carried on the work.
“Unfortunately, no one. All that remains is his publications. I have over a hundred of his mutations. Three or four, I think, are the most beautiful tulips 1 have seen, long-stemmed, white, mauve, with frilled edges. I have only been growing them ten years. I have not even named them yet. It will be ten years more before we are ready to sell. Too bad his work was dropped. He could even predict the color.”
It was de Mol who warned that promiscuous inbreeding of flowers might someday bring about their deterioration. If so, breeding can start all over again, for at Limmen, near Alkmaar, Blokker has preserved the original floral strains that are no longer grown; bypassed in the search for bigger, brighter, earlierblooming and longer-lasting varieties. Blokker keeps these “originals” in his Hortus Bulborum or Bulb Museum— 150 hyacinth strains, 700 tulips.
Here are the flowers the Crusaders saw growing wild by the roadside in Turkey. It was a Turk who named them after his turban (in Turkish, tul ban) because he thought they looked like his headpiece upside down. An Austrian diplomat brought one home in 1560. By the turn of the century bulbs had found their way to Holland and were on sale throughout the country.
The ladies of Paris made tulips the rage and nobles bid up the price till a one-flower corsage was selling for two thousand dollars. When a seventeenthcentury nobleman gave his daughter a dowry of two tulip bulbs she proclaimed herself “the luckiest bride of the year." Bulbs were staked against mansions in gambling games. Duels were fought over whose lady’s tulips were fairest. A brewer traded his business for a bulb called Tulipe Brasserie and tried to clean up by growing more; he ended as a vatman in the brewery he had once owned. Bulbs sold for more than diamonds and a runaway boom hit Holland as butchers and bakers and cheesemakers quit their jobs to grow their fortunes.
“Tulip mania,” the Dutch called it. For three years beginning in 1637 it ran wild. There is record of a barter of a bulb for a load of grain, four oxen, twelve sheep, five pigs, two tubs of butter, a thousand pounds of cheese, a suit of clothes and four barrels of beer. When the bulb bubble burst it brought ruin to thousands. Riots broke out and the government stepped in to settle thousands of bankruptcies and lawsuits.
Yet it was the tulip mania that publicized Holland’s bulb business and
showed the Dutch they had the right
combination: sandy soil, sea breezes, and a low even temperature. Dutch sailors and merchants brought back bulbs from their travels abroad — daffodils from
Greece, hyacinths from Spain. Dutch
breeders sent plant hunters into the mountains of Persia for tulips. And Dutch salesmen went clumping out, tactless, sometimes impudent, always persistent. They thrust pictures of their flowers in front of seedsmen, florists and gardeners, pointing a horny finger at the price. If that didn’t sell, out came a photograph of their needy family. Never were Dutch families, notoriously large, so large as then.
Their three centuries of building was threatened in 1917. Eelworms ruined the crops that year. At this point the government called in Dr. Egbert van Slogteren, “The Professor,” a burly, bearded expert in botany, anatomy, morphology, physiology, genetics and pathology, who was then a young reserve army officer.
With one helper he dissected bulbs by the hundreds, finding out incidentally that when a bulb was “resting,” as growers thought it was between lifting and planting, it was really at its busiest, reproducing. He also discovered that hot water killed eel worms.
Their hot-water bath did the bulbs no harm; some even flowered sooner, and out of his curiosity concerning this phenomenon grew van Slogteren’s lifelong work: making bulbs defy Mother Nature. In his lab at Lisse bulbs now bloom when he wants them to: retarded by refrigeration or speeded up by baking.
Van Slogteren’s lab now reproduces the climates of thirty countries, and although The Professor has never seen Canada he has done more than anyone else to make Canadians flower-conscious. He has added two weeks to either side of their blooming period here; we now have bulbs that bloom from midApril through May. In the relatively mild climates of southwestern Ontario and the B. C. coast the early-blooming bulbs are becoming particularly popular, led by the Mendel and Triumph breeds. And Canadians can now buy bulbs that flower indoors for Christmas. With these fresh possibilities attracting home gardeners, bulbs are now bought like groceries in supermarkets.
Prices have come down with rising sales and Dutch immigrants have flooded in, bringing with them their love for flowers.
But Dutch bulbmen intend to go right on knocking at our door, convinced they are doing us a favor while they’re doing business. The Dutch have come to believe that growing a plant stands for something special in life, a sort of link with the eternal, a clinging to what is natural in a profusion of man-made things. ★