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Amsterdam Horticulture Tulips To Marijuana
March 30, 2003 at 11:04:07 PT
Everything You Need To Know About Amsterdam,
Amsterdam – It’s paradoxical that one of Europe’s smallest and most crowded countries would be a world leader in horticulture. But the Netherlands is almost an entirely artificial landscape, reclaimed from the sea, planned, designed, and planted to within an inch of its life. In an oddly logical twist, traditional Dutch tolerance and horticultural skills have even combined to make Amsterdam the international center for high-bred marijuana seeds, adding a new strain of ”garden tourism.”
Flowers were the focus of my visit last year, especially the Floriade, a world-class horticultural show the Netherlands stages once every 10 years. There I saw an automated super-efficient ”greenhouse of the future,” which demonstrated how Dutch horticulture is an evolving high-tech industry based on science, supported by specialized equipment.
A morning visit to the giant flower auction house in Aalsmeer (open till 11 a.m.) just south of Schiphol Airport illustrated how the country’s equally efficient distribution systems whiz delicate cargoes of flowers from harvest to international markets in hours, ensuring a Dutch lock on 65 percent of the world’s trade in cut flowers.
The next Floriade isn’t until 2012, but there’s still a lot for gardeners to see and admire here.
If you come during tulip time, April through mid-May, you may want to rent a car to drive through the bulb fields and visit the annual bulb display at Keukenhof, redesigned every year to contain more than 5 million tulips, daffodils, and other bulbs.
If so, drive to the city of Haarlem, only 12 miles west of Amsterdam, and then take the minor road south toward Vogelenzang and De Zijk, and you will be surrounded for miles by a checkerboard of intense color from millions of tulips (grown not for their flowers but for their bulbs). A few miles farther on, you will see signs for Keukenhof, near Lisse.
Before you return your rental car, consider visiting some of the other great gardens outside Amsterdam. For some reason, three of the best begin with the letter W.
De Wiersse with its elegant sunken garden, rose parterre, and birch grove bright with daffodils and avalanche lilies, is open May to October and is located three miles east of Vorden on Route N319. Warmelo, noted for topiary and its exotic pines, is south of Diepenheim and open from mid-May to mid-October. The romantic late 19th-century moated gardens surrounding the castle at Weldam are only a mile from there and open year round. Both these last two are about eight miles from Enschede via Route N346. I found the long hornbeam-covered walk at Kasteel Weldam especially memorable.
If you want to stick with the excellent public transportation system, take the train from Amsterdam to Leiden, and hop on the ”Keukenhof Express” bus at the station.
Or you can walk to Leiden University’s Botanic Garden, founded in 1587 and one of the earliest in Europe. The garden of its famous director Carolus Clusius, who laid the foundation of the Dutch bulb industry, has been reconstructed from late 16th-century records. A laburnum he planted still survives. When I visited in September, swaths of lawn were carpeted with purple fall-blooming crocus. Only in the Netherlands would a horticulturist win enduring celebrity.
The one Dutch garden you must not miss (besides Keukenhof in season), is Het Loo (pronounced ”low”), a mile northwest of Apeldoorn off Route N344. Prince William of Orange commissioned the castle in 1684. Five years later William and Mary were crowned as joint sovereigns of Britain and never returned to see the magnificent garden that was created for them here. But their interest continued, so the garden was well documented for them through paintings and writings. This proved especially fortunate because when Napoleon installed his younger brother Louis as king of Holland for four years, he had the garden obliterated in 1807 so that he could enjoy a more modern landscape.
Het Loo continued as a royal palace until the death of Queen Wilhelmina there in 1975, when it was turned over to the public. Eight years of planning followed by eight years of effort have almost completely restored the garden to its original appearance, using the old plans. To tour this Baroque 17th-century garden, perfect in almost every detail, and know that it is really only a decade old, made me marvel at Dutch craftsmanship.
The job was made easier by the fact that Louis’s workmen, working fast perhaps because of his uncertain tenure (Napoleon forced him to resign in 1810), simply knocked the walls on their sides and buried the garden under six feet of imported loam. Many statues, urns, and fountains were able to be unearthed and repaired, or used for casting replacements.
Cleverly engineered cascades, fountains, and formal pools abound here. The plants are only those that would have grown in a 17th-century Dutch garden, such as nasturtiums, fritillaries, monkshood, rue, and Rosa gallica. The Dutch were early and ardent plant collectors, so each is isolated and exhibited like a precious rare acquisition, as it was 400 years ago.
The most famous botanic garden in Amsterdam is the Hortus Botanicus, founded in 1682 in the downtown district called the Plantage, the longtime center of Jewish life until the Nazi occupation of World War II and the Holocaust. The garden was laid out at the request of the town’s doctors and pharmacists to grow medicinal plants, in many cases supplied by the Dutch East India Company. As part of last year’s observances of the company’s 475th anniversary, each of these introductions wore ceramic collars to odd effect. They looked as if they were growing out of plates and that the garden was set for a vegetarian banquet. They included a descendant of the first coffee plant grown outside Africa, for which the Dutch were able to find and exploit commercial applications, as usual.
I was lucky enough to attend a canal house open day for charity, which allowed me access to the beautiful gardens hidden behind the private homes that front on the canals of Amsterdam’s historic city center, and these events are something to look for.
But the best way to enjoy flowers in Amsterdam is to simply stroll the streets. People employ considerable diligence to coax blooms from window boxes, planters, and the few square feet of earth in front of their houses. Some of the prettiest front yard gardens are in the Begijnhof, a well-concealed courtyard of old homes, including the city’s oldest house, that were once a religious community. Entered through a pedestrian gateway between Kalverstraat and Nieuwezids Voorburgwal near the excellent Amsterdam Historical Museum, it has a tranquillity that goes well with its carefully tended roses.
It’s a two-block walk from there to the famous Bloemenmarkt on the Singel Canal. This has been a floating flower market since 1862, catering to the locals’ passion for blooms. But you will be tempted to buy cut flowers from carts throughout the city. You will find oddities like purple flowering artichokes, then be even more impressed by the low prices. I saw 10 large peonies for sale for $6.
The Dutch obsession with horticulture also shows up in their approach to growing marijuana, which is sold in 400 ”coffeehouses” from menus that describe varieties as though they were fine wines.
There is even a Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum here on the Oudezijds Achterburgwal in the red light district (prostitution is also legal here), which like most of Amsterdam is pretty safe. At this establishment I saw an indoor display garden of marijuana plants grown behind glass under blinding 400-watt lights.
Though growing marijuana is legal only for personal use, many Dutch have approached it as another cash crop. Anything you can harvest under lights in a closet presents an irresistible business opportunity in a country with so little land and such a knack for growing things. ”The Dutch growers are young. Most don’t even smoke. It’s strictly commercial for them,” said an aging American biker there who identified himself as Eagle Bob. A looming felony conviction in the States had prompted him to join the large expatriate subculture here dedicated to this weed.
”As long as the smell doesn’t get out, or water drip on the head of the lady living downstairs, nobody bothers you,” said Eagle Bob. ”If they get a complaint, the police may take away all your equipment, but they won’t put you in jail. You can do whatever you want here as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” Unlike in the United States, Dutch law differentiates between ”soft drugs,” defined as cannabis and hashish, and ”hard drugs,” such as heroin and cocaine.
Next door to this pungent museum is The SensiSeed Bank — http://www.sensiseeds.com/ — which sells not only seeds, but growing equipment and how-to videos in five languages. Their catalog reads like Burpee’s, with photographs of varieties, listed days to maturity, and rapturous descriptions. A thumb’s up symbol indicated varieties ”Best for Beginners.” Another symbol indicates winners of the High Times Cannabis Cup, an international competition for growers sponsored here each November by the American magazine. The catalog copy also reflects the horticulturists’ relentless tinkering to build a better plant. ”By crossing the Haze, the most powerful Sativa in the world, to a non-dominant Indica we managed to get the height and flowering time of the plant down to an acceptable level and still retain the unique Sativa qualities of the high,” boasted the catalog.
The Dutch have never been a people to leave nature the way they found it. First they transformed the tulip, and now this.
WHAT TO DO
Netherlands Board of Tourism
355 Lexington Ave.
New York, NY 10017
212-370-7360, ext. 19
Koninklijk Park 1, Alperdoorn
The palace is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The garden and stables are open April 1 to Nov. 1, 1-5 p.m. Admission: $2 adults. Trains leave from Amsterdam’s Central station on the half hour.
Hortus Botanicus Leiden
Rapenburg 73, Leiden
Admission: $5 adults.
166a Stationsweg, Lisse
Open March 21-May 20, 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Admission: $13 adults. Parking $4. During the open season, you can get to the Keukenhof directly from the Leiden rail station on bus 54, the Kuekenhof Express or by taxi — http://www.treintaxi.nl There are restaurants in the gardens.
7478 RV Diepenheim
7475 MN Markelo
WHERE TO STAY
Best Western Eden Hotel
1017 AE Amsterdam
Small modern rooms but large breakfasts in a great location on Amstel Canal in the center of the old city near Rembrandtplein. $170.
Hotel De Keizerskroon
Konigstraat 7, Alpeldoorn
Deluxe hotel with restaurant, across the street from Het Loo, and a good jumping-off place for touring the W’s. Reservations can be made in the United States through the KLM Golden Tulip hotel chain. Rooms: $190.
WHERE TO EAT
Koetshuis De Burcht
Burgsteeg 13, Leiden
Good and reasonably priced Dutch food in a friendly atmosphere. You can eat on the back patio. $15-$22.
Reguliersbreestraat 45, Amsterdam
Good street food for strolling. Mashed chickpea balls deep fried with salad for $4. Several locations.
Reguliersdwarsstraat 26, Amsterdam
Indonesian is the Netherland’s best cuisine. Here you can eat outdoors in a beautiful flower garden. $15-$25.
Utrechtsestraat 75, Amsterdam
Another reliable Indonesian place, near Rembrandtplein. $20-$30.
This story ran on page M6 of the Boston Globe on 3/30/2003.
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