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Tiptoe through tulips in Holland, where spring has real flower power

Tiptoeing through tulip fields Lisse where KeukenhGardens attract more than 800000 visitors each spring.   |  RobUtrecht~Getty Images

Tiptoeing through the tulip fields in Lisse, where the Keukenhof Gardens attract more than 800,000 visitors each spring. | Robin Utrecht~Getty Images

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KEUKENHOF GARDENS: If you don’t have a car, take advantage of the frequent bus service between Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport (bus 58) and Keukenhof. Buses run daily through May 20 and the trip takes roughly 45 minutes. Buy a “combiticket” that covers your bus ride and Keukenhof admission by going to the website and clicking “your visit” and “how to get there.” Keukenhof adult admission costs 14.50 euros ($21). The gardens are open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. through May 20. Arrive early to avoid the crowds. Keukenhof will be open from March 22 to May 20 next year.

Updated: April 29, 2013 8:56AM

LISSE, Netherlands — Forget wooden shoes, windmills and wheels of Gouda cheese.

The tulip is the irrefutable hallmark of Holland.

And right about now is when this symbol of spring is in its full glory, blanketing large patches of the Netherlands in tidy rows of red, orange, yellow, purple and pink.

Every corner flower market in the Netherlands sells bundles of fresh cut tulips and bags of the onion-like bulbs they come from. Walk along the canals and you’ll see blossom-stuffed vases in the windows of the gabled homes and houseboats of the Dutch, who view fresh flowers as a necessity, not a luxury.

The tulip is so revered here, Amsterdam has a museum devoted to it. Amsterdam also has a museum devoted to marijuana, but this story is about plants you don’t smoke.

The latter part of April is prime tulip time at the Netherland’s premier showcase for spring flowers: the expansive Keukenhof Gardens, about 20 miles southwest of Amsterdam. It ranks as one of Holland’s most popular tourist attractions.

Fans of the flower have been flocking to Keukenhof since 1949, when those in the bulb business held their first open-air exhibition of spring blooms on these picturesque grounds. But the tulip has been cherished for centuries by the Dutch — a practical people whose passion for the flower once reached such a frenzy, prized bulbs were worth more than their weight in gold.

In what economists would later point to as one of the first futures markets, Dutch townspeople in the early 17th century would gather in the local pub and write promissory notes pledging often outrageous sums for rare varieties of tulip bulbs that were still buried below ground.

Consider this tidbit from Mike Dash’s aptly titled 1999 book Tulipomania: A Dutch carpenter made about 250 guilders a year in the 1630s. The highest documented price paid for a single tulip bulb rang in at more than 20 times that amount — 5,200 guilders — in 1637. That’s the year that Holland’s wildly speculative tulip market imploded, causing financial ruin for many a tulip trader.

The market crash destroyed plenty of lives, but the flowers themselves survived — and thrived. These days, no country’s soil pops out more tulips. Enough bulbs are planted in the Netherlands to cover 40,000 soccer fields.

If you have tulips blooming in your garden, there’s a good chance they came from this corner of western Europe. Some 70 percent of the world’s tulip bulbs are supplied by the Netherlands, a nation that’s roughly a quarter the size of Illinois in terms of land.

Holland is the tulip’s adoptive home, not its birthplace. Most wild tulips can be traced to the Himalayas, and the flowers were first cultivated in the Ottoman Empire before making their way west in the late 16th century. It’s thought that the flower’s name stems from the tulip-like turbans, or “tulbands,” worn by the Turks. In any event, tulips took a liking to Holland’s sandy soil and temperate climate, and the Dutch took a liking to tulips.

The heart of the Netherlands’ tulip growing region is between Leiden and Haarlem, just west of Amsterdam. Between these two Dutch towns is the small village of Lisse, whose claim to fame is the horticultural hot spot of Keukenhof.

About 800,000 people a year — most with cameras dangling around their necks — pour into this 79-acre park to marvel at the daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths and, of course, tulips.

The gardens are only open nine weeks a year. The current season wraps up May 20.

Seven million spring bulbs — about 4.5 million of them tulips — are planted annually at Keukenhof, which has a new theme every year. This year it’s “Germany: Land of Poets and Philosophers,” and features a massive floral mosaic of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

Visitors can climb a 19th century windmill for views of the pancake-flat bulb-growing region, take an hour-long boat ride through the area’s shallow channels and wander along 10 miles of Keukenhof’s footpaths.

And because the Dutch love bicycles almost as much as tulips, you can rent a set of wheels just outside the park to pedal past the colorful petals.

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions.

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