Bulbs Garden History

The Year Tulips Saved the Dutch from Starvation

Bushels of tulip bulbs

During the Second World War, tulips helped save the Dutch population from starvation.

By Larry Hodgson

Did you know that the tulip bulbs are edible, that is, if you prepare them properly? Well, the Dutch people learned this the hard way.

The Hunger Winter

The winter of 1944–1945, just before the end of World War II, is known in Holland as the Hunger Winter (“Hongerwinter”). The Nazis still occupied most of the country at the time. To punish the reluctance of the Dutch people to support their efforts, they cut off food deliveries from agricultural areas. To make matters worse, it was a particularly cold and snowy winter, so heating supplies were also limited. Over 4.5 million people were affected by the resulting famine. It’s estimated that more than 22,000 of them died of malnutrition or of related causes.

Dutch child suffering from malnutrition.
Young children suffered greatly from famine during the Hunger Winter. Photo: Menno Huizinga, Wikimedia Commons

Children and the elderly were most at risk. World-renowned actress Audrey Hepburn, born in the Netherlands, lived through the Hunger Winter as a child. As a result of her privations, she suffered from various malnutrition-related illnesses throughout her life.

Tulip Bulbs to the Rescue

Due to a lack of manpower, Holland’s bulb growers had not been able to plant all their bulbs previous fall. As a result, a huge stock of bulbs, often somewhat dehydrated or even rotting, lay untouched in warehouses. Most bulbs such as hyacinths and daffodils are toxic to humans. Tulip bulbs, however, are edible if they are carefully prepared.

Printed recipe for tulip bulb soup.
A recipe for tulip bulb soup. Photo; coquinaria.nl

Realizing the bulbs could save many lives, the Office of Food Supply of the Dutch government published a guide to cooking with tulips. It first explained how to prepare tulip bulbs. For example, you had to remove the skin and the bitter yellow center, where the toxins are concentrated. The guide then suggested recipes for such culinary delights as mashed tulip bulbs and tulip bulb soup. The most popular recipe was simply to grate the bulbs into flour and add salt. By mixing this powder with water, small loaves of bread could be made. A priest who survived the Hunger Winter as a child described the bread as tasting like sawdust. At least, though, it supplied vital calories and minerals and cut the people’s hunger.

Help Finally Comes

Shortly before the liberation of the country in May 1945, deliveries of flour finally arrived from Sweden. The Germans let them through, ending the famine. But the Dutch who survived will never forget their Hunger Winter. Nor the tulip bulbs that helped saved them. 

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

3 comments on “The Year Tulips Saved the Dutch from Starvation

  1. Our ancestors certainly endured and paved the way for us to have an easier life.

  2. Jessica Crawford

    Thank you for this reminder of wartime deprivation.

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