FloraHolland: When A Tulip Is More Than Just A Tulip

When you think of Holland you can’t help but think of windmills, wooden shoes and, of course, tulips. Tulips are not native to the Netherlands. Originally a wildflower, tulips were first cultivated in the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey), as early as 1,000 AD and later imported to Holland in the 17th century where they became a formidable economic force.

Royal FloraHolland

Royal FloraHolland

The tulip is today, still a major economic factor of the country’s economic life, but it plays an even more important role as the cornerstone on which Holland’s leadership as the largest purveyor of plants and seeds in the world is built. It all takes place at FloraHolland, the world’s largest flower auction, where today more than half of the world’s flowers move from grower to distributor and then on to the retail customer – it’s Holland’s “Wall Street for Flowers.”

Tulip history

Cultivated tulips were imported into Holland in the sixteenth century by Carolus Clusius a famous biologist from Vienna. The beautiful flower, called Tulip after the Turkish word for Turban, was sent to him by his friend, Ogier Ghiselain de Busbecq, the ambassador to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) for his garden in Leiden. He planted them and this was the start of the amazing bulb fields we can see today. Clusius wrote the first major book on tulips in 1592. They became so popular that his garden was raided and bulbs stolen on a regular basis.

Historically, Tulips have been an economic force in Holland. Back in the 17th century they became a major trading product. Interest for the flower was huge and bulbs were sold for incredible high prices. Their value had escalated to the extent there was complete “Tulipmania” where a single bulb could fetch as much as a house. Even the ordinary folk took part in the business. An investment “bubble” formed, and when, in 1673, a plant virus – coming to the tulip from a louse living on peaches and potatoes – brought the whole value system crashing down, thousands of people lost everything.

More than just pretty flowers

Royal FloraHolland is a showcase for Dutch expertise in logistics. Well over 20 million plants and flowers – including more than 90% of Holland’s own output — are sold every day at Royal FloraHolland’s four marketplaces throughout the country. The contribution to Holland’s economy is weighty: The auction houses have around 5000 members, 9000 suppliers, 3500 customers and 4500 employees. Dutch floricultural business creates 250,000 full time jobs for people worldwide, directly as well as indirectly.

A mega-operation

The largest of the markets is at Aalsmeer, located just below Schiphol Airport, south of the center of Amsterdam. Here, in a huge concrete bunker-like building, hundreds of mini-trucks hauling wagons full of plants and flowers whizz around other workers on smaller vehicles in an area the size of 200 soccer fields – more than 775 square meters. The plants arrive daily, usually overnight, for the flower auction five days a week, which starts at 6 a.m. and ends around 10 am. Elsewhere in the building, Royal FloraHolland customers – flower sellers ranging from mom and pop outlets to mega chains such as Tesco in the U.K. – are bidding against the clock on the millions of plants and flowers being sold each day.

A co-operative trading system

The unique combination of specialized growers, collective trading platforms and specialist traders in sales and distribution create a cast-iron international supply and marketing system. Professional transport organizations strengthen the logistics function within that system.

Co-operation between all these parties is the powerful instrument that makes the competitive position of the Dutch horticultural industry unique. It makes FloraHolland the gateway to international trade.