Flower Power: How the Dutch use Tulips for Cultural Diplomacy

More than a Dutch symbol or important economic activity, tulips are a charming tool for the country’s cultural diplomacy

April 09th, 2019
Elisa Vallette, News from Berlin
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Spring time offers the Netherlands a great opportunity to radiate around the world. Indeed, the billions of colorful tulips that will blossom until mid-May, largely contributes to Holland’s cultural diplomacy efforts. This article will retrace the origins of Dutch tulips, their history, and their current role.

Originally from the Tien Shan mountains in central Asia, the word ‘tulip’ is derived from the Persian word ‘Tulipan’ which means turban because the original shape of the flower resembles a turban. Tulips were introduced in Western Europe at the end of the sixteenth century thanks to De Busbecq, a Flemish ambassador to the Ottoman Regime, ruled by Suleiman the Magnificent. De Busbecq gave tulip bulbs to his Flemmish friend Carolus Clusius. The botanist Carolus Clusius, director of the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, started to cultivate and study them. He particularly wanted to know why they had such colourings. Later, in 1931, it was discovered that tulips’ special colours were caused by a virus, transmitted through aphids. The tulips in Carolus Clusius’ garden were so rare and difficult to find that his garden was raided a few times.

Different from every other flower known to Europe at that time, these exotic plants soon became a major trading luxury product in Holland and other parts of Europe. The interest for the flower was huge and bulbs were sold for unbelievable high prices. The speculation eventually lead to a financial collapse. According to most historians, the tulipomania was the first financial bubble in the history of capitalism. A fun fact is that tulip petals are edible. During the Dutch famine of 1944, people often had to resort to eating sugar beets and tulips. Today, tulips still play a huge role in Holland.

First, the production and sales of tulips generates economic revenue. The Netherlands is a dominant global supplier of flowers: 77% of flower bulbs traded worldwide come from the Netherlands, the majority of which are tulips. FloraHolland is the world’s largest flower auction. This “Wall Street for Flowers” sees more than half of the world’s flowers move from grower to distributor and then on to the retail customer. Therefore, in addition to the economic revenue generated by exportations, the Netherlands enjoys international reputation on the flower market.

Secondly, the blossoming symphony from March to May attract many tourists. The most famous tulip garden is Keukenhof, which boasts some 7.5 million blooms in 100 varieties and claims to be the most photographed place in the world. As Keukenhof is traditionally one of the five attractions most popular among Chinese tourists in Europe, in 2008, the spring tulip festival was devoted to China, in recognition of the Beijing Olympic Games, with for instance a “Forbidden City” garden where new flower bulbs with Chinese or Olympic names were presented.

Tulips also contribute to Holland’s soft power abroad. Events with thousands of tulips are organized around the world. For instance, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in California organizes every year an American tulip day in San Francisco, highlighting the strong relationship between the Dutch and American floral industries. It is estimated that the Dutch export more than 1 billion flower bulbs to the United States annually.

Similarly, since 1986, the Netherlands sends flowers to St Peter’s Basilica every Easter. This tradition started with Pope John Paul II’s visit to the country in 1985, since then the Vatican decided to let the Netherlands be in charge of the Easter floral display.

Another example of the Dutch tulip diplomacy takes place in Ottawa every spring. Indeed, in 1943, while the Dutch royal family fled to Canada to escape the war in Europe, Princess Margriet was born in Ottawa Civic Hospital. The maternity ward where she was born had to be declared an international territory so she could inherit her Dutch citizenship from her mother, Princess Juliana. Each year as a sign of gratitude, the Dutch royal family sends 10,000 bulbs to Ottawa for the tulip festival.

Therefore, there are many examples of the Dutch tulip diplomacy. The tulip is more than just a symbolic flower, contributing to Holland’s soft power abroad. The tulip represents a tool of the country’s cultural diplomacy. Indeed, tulips not only represent the Dutch abroad and attract foreigners in the country, tulips promote intercultural ties and friendly diplomatic relations. This article cited a few examples with China, the United States, the Vatican or, Canada, and the tulip cultural diplomacy is successfully growing around the world. It is spring time, let’s celebrate the blossoming of billions of tulips in the Netherlands and abroad!


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