Bulbs Garden History Gardening

Holland: the Land Without Bulbs

20170506A franzconde, Flickr
The tulip fields of Holland belie the fact that no bulbs can actually grow there unaided. Photo: franzconde, Flickr

Today, Holland is famous for its bulbs. The vast fields of tulips, daffodils and hyacinths stretch as far as the eye can see and more than one million tourists visit them annually. 77% of all bulbs produced in the world, that’s more than 4.3 billion bulbs, are produced in that country. And yet, before 1554, there were no bulbs in Holland. None. Zilch. Zero.

To explain this, let’s first get our geography straight. Holland consists of two provinces within a country officially called the Netherlands, North Holland and South Holland. No bulb ever grew in those two provinces until humans introduced them.

Daffodils Narcissus Pseudonarcissus Osterglocken
The lent lily or wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) only grows in hilly areas, never in the Netherlands’s boggy lowlands.

Even if you take all of the Netherlands into consideration, it remains a country sorely lacking in native bulbs. It’s only in the province of Limburg, where Maastricht is located, that the country’s single native bulb is found. That province, tightly ensconced between Germany and Belgium, is the only one in the country where there are natural hills worthy of that name, and on those hills grows the country’s only native bulb, the increasing rare lent lily or wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus). All other bulbs—tulips, hyacinths, crocuses, and even all other narcissus—were all imported from other countries.


It seems odd to say so, but in fact the growing conditions in Holland simply aren’t suitable for bulbs. I mean, really not.

It has a long, cool spring, a combination that most hardy bulbs appreciate while they are in leaf, but in summer, in this flat, sandy land where the water table is rarely more than 1 foot (30 cm) deep, the soil simply remains too moist. Hardy bulbs, which have to go dormant after they bloom and therefore need fairly dry conditions, simply rot away.

nov08 0029
In Holland, bulbs must be dug and stored dry after they bloom. Otherwise, they rot. Photo: J.M. van Berkel

The Dutch however learned they could successfully grow bulbs… by digging them up after they finish blooming and storing them dry in warehouses before replanting them in the fall. The return of cool autumnal temperatures awakens the bulbs which now need good soil humidity again. The combination of cold and humidity stimulates them to produce roots and then, as winter progresses, shoots. Everything is therefore on schedule for beautiful spring flowers… but only if the bulbs are stored dry over the summer.

Bulbs in Your Garden

Unless you live in a swamp (or overuse an irrigation system), you probably don’t need to dig up hardy bulbs after they bloom in spring. I don’t and I live surrounded by spring bulbs. In most temperate gardens, the water table is deep enough that the soil dries out a bit in the summer… and that’s all it takes to satisfy most hardy bulbs. They can therefore stay in the ground for years and often even proliferate.

It’s hard to imagine Holland, which always brings to mind fields of gorgeous tulips, as being a land without bulbs, but so it was!20170506A franzconde, Flickr

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