Tulips are found all over The Netherlands and parts of Europe, but when one talks of them, Keukenhof, with its millions of colourful flowers is the place that comes to mind.
Not many would be aware that the first large collection of tulips was brought to the Netherlands and successfully cultivated by Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius, in the Hortus botanicus, a garden laid out in premises of the University of Leiden, for education and research purposes.
The story goes that in the 16th century, the Austrian ambassador to the Turkish court returned to Vienna with a tulip bulb. He gave it to Clusius who was the prefect/director of the imperial medicinal garden. In 1593, Clusius, who was already 67 years old, moved to the University of Leiden, as the first director of Hortus botancius that had already been set up at that time. Here Clusius planted the tulip bulbs he had carried with him. Thus bloomed the first tulips in Western Europe. Clusius worked with plants right till his death in 1609. Two flowerbeds were entirely devoted to the tulip.
Tulips were much sought-after, selling at very high prices, and getting stolen as well. Unconventional very pretty “flamed tulips” became very popular. It was discovered that the flame pattern, stripes and streaks, were caused by a virus infection, and the patterns did not necessarily get transferred from one tulip to another.
The mania peaked in 1636-37, before the bubble burst and many traders were rendered bankrupt. In the Hortus botanicus Leiden, we can still find tulip species that date back to the early days of the garden.
The tropical glasshouse complex at Hortus botanicus has managed collections of tropical plants right from the seventeenth century. The current glasshouses date from 1938 (they’ve been renovated and expanded) and focus on plants from the Southeast Asia region.
It was a delight to find several beds of various spices (remember why the Europeans came to India!) and other plants that grow in our neighbourhoods in India.
We finally saw the Pitcher plant that we learnt about in school, and the Chenille plant that has lent its anatomy to pipe cleaners that children play with.
Clusius had a plant list with 1585 names, dating back to 1594-95. It included those that he did not have but wished for. Researchers matched these names to Carolus Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature. Plants are labeled with their common and binomial names to aid recognition. And the garden is regularly updated and expanded to help students and researchers.
It is indeed nice that the public has access to the gardens. Apart from offering an exceptional academic environment to university students, it is a great place to exercise, or just chill out, wave out to the passing canal boats, watch the birds and take in the fresh air!
Sources of information: sign boards on the campus/garden and leaflets