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.
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.
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.