Chasing Rembrandt’s Tulips on Two Wheels

While primarily a painter of people, the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn immortalized at least one tulip. In 1634 he painted his wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, as Flora, goddess of spring and flowers, crowned with a wreath of blooms, of which the largest is a tulip. Its petals are unmistakably striped, with white and red running in flame-like lines. Flowers like it became known as Rembrandt tulips, named by bulb traders in homage to his chiaroscuro painting style and to tap cachet from a famous name.

Saskia in her finery crowned with the most expensive type of tulip is in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. But tulipmania, which lifted the Dutch economy to dizzying heights followed by a cataclysmic crash, began in the Hortus botanicus, the botanical garden in Leiden, the city of Rembrandt’s birth. Tulips first arrived in the Netherlands in 1562. Mistaken for a Turkish onion, they were tasted, found underwhelming and dumped as rubbish, then rescued by someone who spotted flowers emerging from the rubbish heap in spring.

Today, flying into Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport in spring, you see a quilt of colors spread across the land; bulb fields in bloom. While the glimpse from a plane is fleeting, taking time to cycle around the fields provides a better view and immersion in the scent of millions of flowers. Leiden, which is marking the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, remains the center of this world of blooms. Both literally — because of the nearby flower fields — and intellectually, as a consortium of horticulturalists and scientists based in Leiden’s Bioscience Park decoded the tulip genome and are applying understanding its DNA to innovation in tulip breeding and production.

Leiden is a city that showcases its past. This year the Lakenhal Museum is bringing together an exhibition of Rembrandt’s early works, painted in Leiden. Leiden has the second biggest old town center in the Netherlands, where 17th-century merchant houses line the canals. Huys van Leyden is a 400-year-old house converted into a hotel. Its rooms are cozily opulent, and at the back, a small courtyard garden offers a secluded spot for fresh air. It is an ideal pit stop before heading off on a pedal-powered journey.

I rented a bicycle for €10 per day (about $11.30) from EasyFiets, a rental agency that offers the convenience of online advance booking. It is only a 15 minute walk from Leiden Centraal station. I asked for a bicycle with handbrakes instead of a back brake. I find the slow motion halt caused by the gap between wanting to brake and remembering the back brake induces more adrenaline than I need on a bike ride. EasyFiets also provided cycling maps for the bulb fields and panniers on request. My carry on luggage was easy to stuff into bicycle panniers.

Dutch bicycles are sturdy beasts, which take more effort to move than sylphlike road-bikes. When I mentioned that to my Dutch friend Hugo, he laughed and said, “Bicycles have to be heavy to resist falling over in wind.” Leiden has more bicycles than places to chain them, so they are often left propped on their foot stands exposed to winds rushing inland from the North Sea.

In a living ode to tulips and other spring flowering bulbs the Keukenhof garden, on the grounds of Keukenhof castle, which was built in 1641 by Adriaen Maertensz Block, an administrator for the Dutch East India Company, grows 7 million a year. Not just a show of new bulb varieties supplied by Dutch floriculturalists, the annual exhibition is an institution that shares innovation like ‘lasagna technique’ — planting bulbs in layers above each other to fit more flowers in the same space. Almost 1.5 million people visited the Keukenhof in 2018. It is certainly the place to start a spring flower odyssey.

Cycling northwest out of Leiden to Rijnsburg then northeast past Noordwijkerhout, then east to the Keukenhof was a scenic but indirect route. My time along the route’s flat paths and small roads was not determined by its distance. Rather, this journey’s length was dictated by how often I stopped to look at fields of flowers.

With a ticket booked in advance I didn’t need to queue to get into the Keukenhof. Despite visitors being deposited by coach loads, it is a garden with space for all who arrive. Although getting there when it opens at 8 a.m. will give you a moment of relatively unpopulated vistas of flowers. Blossom, lawns and other bulbs are a foil to tulips. They are woven into streams of color under trees and fill flower beds in contrasting and complementary colors — there is space for all combinations to be tried.

It is gardening on a distorted scale where size is immense but time is short — the Keukenhof is only open for two flower-packed months from the 21st of March until the 19th of May.

In contrast to arrays of flowers selected for visual appeal in the Keukenhof, bulb fields are industry that is incidentally beautiful. Catching fields of tulips in peak bloom is not an exact science; it tends to be the last two weeks of April. As bulbs are the desired product, flowers are not left in the field for long; they are cut to prevent energy being directed into seed setting.

For my ride to dinner I took a meandering route along flowery fields going from the Keukenhof to Kaag Lakes at the western edge of the ‘Bollenstreek,’ the bulb zone. I started out by trying to follow the Dutch system of navigating cycling paths by ‘knooppunten’ — numbered intersections or nodes. In theory, my route went 40-49-29-91-30-38-57-55-54-25, but in practice it included a couple of diversions down side roads next to flowery fields, through Lisse.

Rembrandt tulips did not feature in art or in dried botanical specimens before the end of the 16th century. In cultivation in Europe a virus had evolved. It suppresses primary pigment made in petals, leaving areas where the white or yellow underlying color shows. It also weakens the plants and is highly infectious.

In 1624 one tulip bulb sold for 8 times a worker’s annual salary. Prices spiraled upward for more than a decade as people speculated on flowers that might emerge from tulip bulbs. Akin to having a phoenix hatch from a chicken egg, a Rembrandt tulip, with its streaked petals, was an ephemeral capricious beauty; they were short lived and people were not sure what caused them to be different from standard blooms.

Today, virus-tainted tulips are never deliberately planted in bulb fields because they are considered a liability. Striped petals in tulips sold today have stripes caused by genetic variation, not by tulip breaking virus.

Cycling small roads that run alongside bulb-filled fields makes it easy to stop on a whim for a closer look. I never spotted a rogue virus-caused Rembrandt tulip in a bulb field, though very rarely they are sighted and promptly removed so that they don’t damage the bulb crop with their infection. In gaps showing between leaves the soil is pale, it flows through your fingers like sand. These fields are only a step away from the sea. Occasionally you can see tiny shells left in the soil from a previous era when it lay underwater. This soil is a connection between the original wild tulips of Central Asia and the immense agricultural production of bulbs in the Netherlands. Free-draining soil suits plants with fleshy bulbs like tulips as they can store water and nutrients to survive seasons of relative drought, but fail to thrive in sodden ground.

At Kaag lakes I took a ferry 40 meters from Buitenkaag to Kagereiland, an island, landing me and my bicycle nearly on the doorstep of Tante Kee restaurant. As the restaurant was not full on a weekday evening I scored a lake view seat without having made a booking. Early evening sunset spilling over my table made a serving of mussels, langoustines and vegetables scaled by pea tendrils look like a still life by a Dutch Master. A sheet of annotated paper between cheese and platter made the cheese course resemble a whisky tasting.

Since the 12th century people have been draining submerged land and converting it to agriculture in the Netherlands. Windmills were used to pump water into drainage channels to reach rivers and the sea. Now pumps are run by diesel, not wind, but the polder landscape of small rectangles of land surrounded by drainage channels remains. I took the ferry off the island back to Buitenkaag. Cycling to Leiderdorp, a village at the edge of Leiden, I skirted Kaag lakes by heading east then south then west through the polders, following nodes 8-9-28-40-86-49-48-38-41. Hares dotted the grass. Later I found a postcard of a hare leaping across a drainage channel and sent it to my niece. At the Lindenhof bed-and-breakfast, on the outskirts of Leiderdorp, one bedroom has a skylight under a tree. When you open the window and reach out to touch the leaves it is like being perched in a treetop.

Carolus Clusius, a physician and botanist who was a professor of botany at University of Leiden, established Leiden’s Hortus botanicus, its famous botanical garden, and it is where he planted and propagated his collection of tulips from Constantinople. Clusius first wrote about tulips in his book on “most strange and elegant plants from Thrace.”

As you walk into the Hortus botanicus a tabby cat is often sprawled in a pot basking in the sun. I frequently visit this garden. Like Clusius I am a botanist, but I focus on trade in plants collected from the wild. My research on edible orchids is based in the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, an institution that holds natural history collections, runs research laboratories and education programs, and has a natural-history museum that is reopening this year in its new building.

Some of my experimental samples of orchids are grown at the Hortus. Not in the tropical lushness of the main glasshouse, but outdoors in unheated frames. When flowering they join bulbs in the specially constructed display glasshouse. Its glass walls and roof allow in plenty of light while keeping out dampness from mists and rain, creating a climate more akin to tulips’ and orchids’ native lands. It also makes it more difficult for people to steal them. Clusius planted his tulips in 1593, in 1596 and 1598 some of them were taken. Those stolen bulbs were the beginning of both short-lived tulipmania, and the long- lasting bulb trade that now sees about 2 billion tulip bulbs grown each year in the Netherlands.

We think of tulips as ornamental but within living memory they were famine food. In the Hunger Winter of 1944-1945, more than 20,000 people died of starvation. Rations distributed by the Dutch government had to incorporate unconventional foods. In the Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam there is a recipe for tulip soup and a photo of women with sacks of tulips, peeling them for a soup kitchen.

Leiden is a leafy city, but sometimes I crave a little more wilderness. After checking my plants at the Hortus I headed out to the dunes at the edge of the North Sea. Most of the cyclists I met were on upright bicycles and treated helmets as superfluous on the car-free bicycle paths. But on the pavement through the Klein Berkheide nature reserve, the closest patch of untamed nature near Leiden, a gang of Lycra-clad and helmeted sports cyclists whizzed past making use of hills and valleys in the dunes all the way along the coast from Katwijk an Zee to Den Hague. It is a contrast to most cycling in the area which is flat.

When the sun is shining a picnic between grass-tufted dunes by Katwijk an Zee is a glorious way to catch a sunset and watch paragliders. De Fransoos in Leiden is good for picking up sandwiches and cheese. On overcast days when the idea of sitting in the winds with cold food seems chilly, you can stop at Kees Hartevelt on the boulevard at Katwijk an Zee for fried fish.

As flowers cultivated in the bulb fields start to pass peak flowering, wildflowers in the dunes begin to bloom in abundance. Sprawling rugosa roses, from Japan, have moved in and create heaps of bold pink flowers by the path. Viper’s-bugloss punctuates them with blue spikes.

This area was the only place I was stopped by a bicycle traffic jam. Rounding a corner I felt annoyed to see the path blocked by people and cyclists, until I saw what they were looking at. Sitting by a bench next to an old man offering morsels of his sandwich was a fox. After a few minutes of sharing the man’s snack, the fox strolled away, quickly blending into the dunes.

One night after a late dinner with friends in Leiden I reached the Fletcher Boutique Hotel Duinoord at the edge of Klein Berkheide just after the front door was locked. Opening the door and greeting me by name, the receptionist gave me an envelope he was about to stick on the door before he went home. It had my name on it and room key inside. The hotel is cradled within the dunes, and once hotel restaurant and bar are shut, there is nothing but the sound of nature. In springtime when tulips are at peak flowering, nights here are dominated by chattering natterjack toads. A densely populated and extensively farmed land is transformed into the aural equivalent of a remote rain forest by singing amphibians.

Susanne Masters is a botanist who writes about plants as well as conducting research on their uses and conservation.

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