Tulips from Amsterdam

Tulips are in florist shops all over town this week. But gardeners are only just beginning to think about where and when to plant the fat bulbs they have ordered. The flowers are months off.  So where are the tulips in florist shops coming from?  Holland of course.

A friend gave me a huge bunch of tulips this week. The tight buds carried just a lick of colour on their seams when they arrived and over the next few days the blooms revealed themselves as crimson-pink or orange flushed with the colours of a tropical cocktail. Every day they seemed more gloriously sunny – and there was an extra layer of loveliness in knowing just where they had come from.

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Photo by Robin Powell

These are bunches of tulips for sale in the Bloemenmarkt floating flower market along the Singel canal in Amsterdam.  I took the shot last year on a Ross Garden Tour of Holland and Belgium and yes, that’s a bunch of 50 for 10 Euro ($13!).

The bloemenmarkt is a bit of a tourist trap for the horticulturally unwary. At first everything looks incredible: tulip bulbs as big as onions; hippeastrum bulbs as big as dinosaur eggs; strawberry crowns as big parsnips.  Hang on, what was that?  A strawberry crown as big as a parsnip! That got me curious and then I noticed bulbs labelled ‘Australian chestnuts’. A close look at the advertised image revealed a picture of pink liliums photoshopped on to black bean (Castanospermum australe) foliage!

But while there were some dodgy bulb buys, the flowers themselves were gorgeous: lisianthus buds striped deep burgundy and pink like a sophisticated barber’s pole, perfect white Canterbury bells, stems of cotton exploding like clouds, golden ranunculus as fat as miniature suns and buckets and buckets of tulips.

My bunch of tulips did not come from a market like this, though, it came from the mother of all flower markets, Aalsmeer, near Schipol airport, which looks like this.

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Photo by Robin Powell

Aalsmeer Flower Market is the fourth largest building in the world and the largest flower market.  Twenty million flowers are sold here every day, a staggering number that jumps by 15% for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day! On the floor of the market, little electric cars drive trains of carriages filled with flowers – peonies, roses, gerbera, hydrangea, bird of paradise, sweet peas and tulips. The drivers in the cars zoom around collecting and delivering flowers according to complicated instructions not at all clear to spectators on the pedestrian bridge above them.

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Photo by Robin Powell

From our vantage point it looks like a train set, put together by a child and run by a deranged teenager who is building the speed to a crescendo, and surely to a dramatic crash when the trains will collide and flowers will go everywhere, heads rolling, petals drifting slowly to the ground.

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Photo by Robin Powell

After a while the chaos resolves and it’s clear everyone knows exactly what they are doing. The gigantic market developed from a handful of growers who brought their flowers on barges down the canal to sell. Now the flowers come from all around the world, and leave here bound for vases the world over. A new trolley system takes carts of flowers directly to the airport via an overpass so that flowers can to be loaded straight onto planes without having to go into trucks or battle any traffic. It all means that flowers can be in your local florist just a few days after they were picked.

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Photo by Robin Powell

The market operates as a Dutch auction: the bidding goes down instead of up. The action starts at 6.30am in four different auction rooms. Buyers sit at computer terminals in tiered seats facing a giant screen. The screen shows an image of the flower for sale and gives details about the grower, the country of origin, the number of stems per container and the quality mark given it by the Aalsmeer quality controllers. The auctioneer starts the clock at the reserve price and then it winds down until someone stops the clock at the price they are willing to pay. The process takes just a few seconds. The longer you wait the cheaper the price and the more likely someone will beat you to the bargain. Turns out this is a great spectator sport!  I just get my head around what’s going on, and it’s over. The clock ticks to 8.30: the market floor is empyting, and another 20 million flowers are on their way to making someone smile.

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Photo by Robin Powell

Comments (5)

  1. Aha, tulips from Amsterdam! I love your description of Aalsmeer, Robin!
    When I was in Brugge, I bought myself a big bunch of tulips in the markets , then sat them in the ice bucket in my hotel room, and enjoyed that delightful feeling of luxurious homeliness that only a vase full of flowers can bring when living out of a suitcase!

    Think I’m visiting a florist tomorrow!

  2. Today is the last day of my magical English Chelsea Flower show tour and the horticultural highlight has been the zillions of tulips we have seen across the country. From Marilyn Abbott’s pots of lemon and peach tulips with soft carex grasses, to the pink and purple pots at Prince Charles garden in Highgrove, to the flamboyant pink and green parrot tulips at Petersham nursery yesterday for morning tea, to the mass of orange tulips lipped with pink in the verdigris copper pot outside south cottage at Sissinghurst and finally the mass planting or royal purple, lipstick pink and lemon around the old house at Hidcote .
    The tulips here give me the energy to plant more tulips late autumn in my own garden, so Van Diemans here I come, be warned. One hit wonders they may be, but I shall not be without them.

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