We simply had to be there, in Holland specifically, in the spring when tulips, the iconic flower of the Netherlands, are in full bloom. Tulip season generally extends from the end of March to the middle of May, but they are most often at their peak in mid-April. That settled our timing.
Passing lengthy fields of tulips while driving in the countryside whetted our appetites for more flowers. So intent were we on experiencing flowers that we made them the focus of one of our nine days here.
That day began with a 6:30 a.m. taxi ride from our canal-side apartment in Amsterdam to FloraHolland in Aalsmeer near Schiphol Airport. FloraHolland is the world’s largest flower auction company, trading cut flowers, indoor plants, and garden plants for the international market. Essentially, FloraHolland is a cooperative, an open marketplace where suppliers of floriculture products (growers) and their customers (wholesalers, or buyers) can meet to conduct business.
In the old days, wholesalers visited individual growers one-on-one at their farms. Growers became concerned when they realized their neighbors often received better prices, so they banded together, taking their flowers to the nearest pub and laying them on the pool table for wholesalers to buy. It was a more open, transparent method.
FloraHolland was founded in 1911 to connect growers with buyers on a broader scale in a single place, yet still based on trust. Their customers export to 140 countries worldwide, with about 90% of the products going to Europe and Russia. The U.S. ranks about 15th. For its 100th anniversary in 2011, FloraHolland received special designation as a royal company by the Dutch monarchy.
Even though FloraHolland operates around the clock, visitors must get there early in the morning to see the auction in action. I had scheduled a private media tour with Lex van Horssen, the company’s press officer, for 7:30 a.m., but FloraHolland’s customers already had been there much earlier.
FloraHolland accepts shipments of flowers for auction from growers up until 3:00 a.m. for auction that same day. Interestingly, the best conditions for growing flowers year-round are in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Israel. Most customers begin their day by inspecting the flowers, reviewing orders from their own customers (florists, supermarkets, and other retailers who sell direct to consumers), and prepping for the start of the auction at 6:00 a.m.
Lex told us everything about FloraHolland operates on a massive scale. Take the building itself. Total floor surface in Aalsmeer is about 2 million square meters, or the same as the principality of Monaco, or 250 soccer fields. Adding in the size of its other facilities in the Netherlands brings the floor surface to a whopping 400 soccer fields. He shared more amazing stats:
- Annual turnover: 4.5 billion euros
- Plant and flower sales: 12.5 billion items a year
- Varieties of plants and flowers: 20,000 produced from all over the world
- The Aalsmeer facility has the world’s largest refrigerator, the size of eight soccer fields, to cool flowers until sold.
- Members: 4,500 growers (800 from abroad) and 2,500 non-member growers
- Customers: 2,500
Lex led us across the visitors’ gallery, basically a catwalk, high above the staging area filled with trolleys of flowers ready to be sold. From there we entered the auction room and watched customers bid via computers according to sales information (product photos and specs) projected onto gigantic digital auction clocks. Buyers bid per stem, and buy per bucket, and each trolley has 50 buckets. The pace is rapid, as transactions last about three seconds each.
Once buyers push buttons to make purchases, FloraHolland has less than 90 minutes to select the appropriate buckets from the picking lines and deliver them to customers’ coolers situated elsewhere on the premises. We proceeded on the visitors’ gallery again to another location and watched the hustle and bustle below. Dozens of people drove motorized carts through buffer zones, and picked up orders according to instructions transmitted to their headphones. It looked like a floral superhighway, a scene of controlled frenzy. Drivers expertly zipped in and out and through the rows. How they avoided collisions was beyond our understanding.
For FloraHolland, it’s all about flowering the world. You have to admire an organization whose official vision is “Together we can make the world beautiful and healthier.”
Our next stop was in Lisse at Keukenhof, which bills itself as the most beautiful spring garden in the world, an international showcase of Dutch floriculture with an emphasis on flowering bulbs, especially tulips.
Unlike other attractions in the Netherlands, Keukenhof, meaning “kitchen garden,” is time sensitive because its appearance coincides with tulip season. The 80-acre garden is open this year, its 66th, only from March 20-May 17, and Van Gogh is the theme. Keukenhof expects 800,000 visitors from across the globe to visit during its eight-week run.
Ten flower bulb growers and exporters conceived the idea of Keukenhof to promote the flower industry, and in 1949 they selected the gardens around Keukenhof Castle. The basis for the park was an English landscape garden created there in 1857.
Keukenhof shuttles visitors via floral-patterned buses from Schiphol Airport, and we hopped on one for the half-hour ride. Wow, there were visitors. Rows and rows and more rows of tourist buses from all over Europe filled the parking lot. With only one main road leading to Keukenhof, the key is to be there when it first opens in the morning to avoid traffic backups.
Entering Keukenhof is like walking into a scented, floral Disneyland. More than seven million tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths cover the grounds this year, with 800 varieties of tulips. The landscape is exuberant, the colors vibrant, and the fragrance sweet.
Trees, water features, fountains, grassy areas, statues, arbors, artwork, and serene pathways add to the beauty. Flower shows and exhibitions are set up in several pavilions and greenhouses. A flower parade was scheduled for later in April; photos we saw from previous years look reminiscent of our own Rose Parade on New Year’s Day.