Going DutchPublished on June 24, 2008

  • Bouquets of tulips are a common sight in this Amsterdam marketplace. Varieties such as the Canadian Liberator and Princess Margriet bloomed in Ottawa this year. Photo by Joanne Steventon

  • Hans Segers, manager of Stuifbergen Bulb Export Warehouse in Amsterdam. Photo by Joanne Steventon

The wide halls of the Stuifbergen Bulb Export's warehouse in south Holland are quiet right now, but six months ago this building was bustling with activity.

Each year it's the first stop for the 20,000 tulip bulbs donated to Canada from the Dutch royal family. The bulbs are now waiting to burst out of flower beds across Ottawa in a glorious array of colour just in time for the Canadian Tulip Festival.

The annual bulb donation actually constitutes a very small fraction of the tulips that bloom in the nation's capital every year. But it is a legacy that started and continues to fuel a colourful tradition that defines Ottawa in the spring time.

In Holland, the bulbs destined for Canadian soil were among nearly 50 million from around the Netherlands that converged in wooden crates on the cool concrete floor of the Stuifbergen warehouse each year. Under the supervision of manager Hans Segers, they were dried, packed and shipped around the world.

Hans has overseen these bulbs, including the Canadian order, for the past several years. A life-long tulip enthusiast, he is well-suited for this official task. A no-nonsense businessman, he is the fourth generation in his family to make a living working in the Dutch bulb industry. "Tulips are in my veins. I was born between the tulips," he says. "I have worked with them my entire life."

While spring is the most colourful time for tulips in the Netherlands, peak season for Stuifbergen is between August and October. The majority of its business is done during this three-month period, including the royal order destined for Canada.

While Hans acknowledges the importance of this order, he admits that it's pretty small potatoes especially at such a busy time of year. "If you're talking about 40 crates of 500, that's nearly nothing," he laughs. "To pack the whole order it will take about 10 minutes."

These bulbs may not be at the centre of the tulip universe at the beginning of their journey, but they start to develop a greater significance as they make their way closer to their final resting place in Ottawa soil. "The donation of the tulips every year is really a symbol of the long-lasting friendship between Canada and the Netherlands," says National Capital Commission (NCC) spokesperson Annie Desrosiers.

Canada received its first gift of tulip bulbs from the Netherlands in 1945 following the Second World War. One hundred thousand hand-picked bulbs were sent to Ottawa - a sign of gratitude for Canada's role in the liberation of Holland.

The following year, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands sent another 20,000 bulbs to show her appreciation for the hospitality shown to her and her family, which sought refuge in Ottawa during the war. Ottawa has since received 20,000 tulip bulbs a year from the Netherlands - half from the royal family and half matched by the International Flower Bulb Center since 1958.

The tulips were initially planted on Parliament Hill and next to the Rideau Canal along Queen Elizabeth Drive. Over six decades, they have spread to 90 flower beds across the capital, covering nearly 14,000 square metres of planting beds. The NCC claims that this spring, roughly one million tulips will bloom in the capital region just in time for the Canadian Tulip Festival to spring to life in May.

Each fall, half of the tulips are dug up and replaced with fresh bulbs in the fall. The NCC must purchase roughly 450,000 additional bulbs every planting season to sustain the full range of flower beds across the capital region. While this purchase involves a great deal of time and a substantial chunk of its $1 million floral program budget, Annie says there are two main reasons why the NCC continues to invest in tulips. "It provides a beautiful backdrop to the residents of Ottawa and for people who visit the capital each spring," she says. "But also to remember the contribution of Canadian troops in the liberation of the Netherlands and to remember the friendship between Canada and the Netherlands."

Hans says that many Dutch people are unaware of the flower that binds Ottawa and the Netherlands. But, he says, they will always be grateful for the kindness shown by Canada to Netherlands during and following such a difficult time in his country's history.

Bulb growing tips

It might be shocking to learn that bulb cultivators in the Netherlands remove the tulip flowers shortly after they start to bloom, but this move ensures all the nutrients from the sun are fed directly down to the bulb. But Dorota Grudniewicz, landscape architect for the NCC, says recreational gardeners don't have to go this far to nourish their bulbs. "I would say to enjoy (the tulips)," she adds. Dorota also recommends: In addition to being hardy outdoor flowers, tulips are ideal for cutting and keeping in a vase indoors. Tulips are the only flowers known to continue growing after they've been cut. At the end of the blooming season, the stems should be cut and the leaves should be left in the garden. The energy from the sun goes to the bulb from the leaves. This creates an unattractive display of dying leaves for a few weeks, but the longer you wait to remove them, the better your tulips will do next year. It's best to wait until the foliage separates from the bulb naturally before it is removed. A good indicator is if the leaves are still green, nutrients are still being filtered down to bulb. Once the dead foliage has been removed from the flower bed, it's safe to start replacing them with annuals. Just make sure not to dig down too far and disrupt the bulbs you've worked so hard to preserve. Once outdoor flowers start to whither in the fall, it's time to start thinking about spring bulbs. If proper care is taken, they should return next year in full force. Written by Joanne Steventon

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