When I think of tulips, which I confess is not very often, I think of the Netherlands. Starting in the 17th century, Holland became the world’s tulip center. Still discussed in business schools, the Tulipmania that engulfed Amsterdam between late 1637 and early 1638 created a free market exuberance that makes the recent housing boom and bust look like a minor blip. Despite its destruction of many family fortunes four centuries ago, tulips are still big business in the Netherlands and the farms bring tourists from around the world.
I had no idea that tulips also play a prominent role in the Ottawa calendar. Every May, the City is covered. Literally 1,000,000 tulip bulbs bloom along the Rideau Canal. The official festival runs from May 7th through the 24th, but with a strangely warm February, everything is in bloom early. The large beds, holding around 300,000 tulips, live in Commissioner’s Park, about 5 miles away and I have yet to get down for any length of time. I did, however, walk my neighborhood and make some photos of the small sets I came across.
This year’s theme is Liberation, kicking off 65 years to the minute after the spontaneous street party that erupted on Spark Street after the announcement of the allies’ victory in Europe. It’s a fitting theme on a few levels. The sea of tulips in modern Ottawa, in fact, finds its roots in the dark days of World War II.
As the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940, the Dutch Royal Family fled to England. It was only a matter of months, however, before the Blitzkrieg found its way across the channel and the Battle of Britain began. Queen Wilhelmina arranged to have the heir to the throne, Princess Juliana, and her two young children, secreted to Wales where they boarded a ship to Canada. While her husband fought in the war, Princess Juliana and her children settled in to life in Ottawa. She volunteered for the Canadian war effort and represented her mother at official events, while the two girls attended public school.
In 1943, the Royal Family faced a sensitive quandary. The Princess was pregnant but it was not yet safe to return home. If the Princess were to give birth on foreign soil, however, the child would not be a true heir to the throne. Ever the respectful host, the Canadians officially ceded the hospital room to the Dutch government. Thus, when Princess Margriet took her first breath of Canadian air, she took her place as the fourth heir to the Dutch crown. The new Princess’s baptism became an international event with President Roosevelt and England’s Queen Mary stepping in as godparents.
Canadian troops led the liberation of Holland beginning in 1944 and, on May 5, 1945, Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Foulkes accepted the German surrender. After the war, the Dutch government sent Canada 100,000 tulip bulbs as a token of their appreciation. Princess Juliana gave another 20,000 bulbs and donated another 10,000 bulbs every year, throughout her 33-year reign as Queen, and thereafter until her death in 2004.
Ottawa held its first tulip festival in 1951 featuring the bulbs presented by the Dutch people and Princess Juliana. The festival has grown each year. Commissioner’s Park serves as an epicenter for the tulips and the celebration. It now includes a tribute to Queen Juliana and a dedicated flowerbed to her honor. Liberation, indeed.
The full set of tulip photos can be found here: www.backstopimages.com. I’ll supplement them in a couple weeks with whatever comes of my trip to Commissioner’s Park.