Tulip Time in Holland

The UBC Group on Waterways of Holland and Belgium, 2012

Alumnus Gary Lewis was the UBC Host on the Waterways of Holland and Belgium trip featuring Floriade World Horticultural Exposition, April 14-22, 2012. Gary is the owner of Phoenix Perennials, a cutting edge retail nursery in Vancouver, an expert on perennials and horticulture and he holds two degrees from UBC. He provided inspiring, educational and entertaining presentations and conversations throughout the trip.   

Gary was kind enough to let us publish his experience on our blog. This content was originally published as part of the Phoenix Perennials e-newsletter.

The Largest Flower Auction in the World: Aalsmeer, Netherlands

The Aalsmeer Flower Auction is located outside of Amsterdam near Schipol Airport in the Netherlands. It is the largest flower auction in the world housed in the fifth largest building in the world by floor space at 10.6 million square feet. Every day 20 million flowers and plants move through the auction with a 10% increase around special days like Valentines Day and Mothers’ Day. That amounts to billions of flowers every year.

The flowers sold at the auction are grown in Holland and around the world in countries like Israel, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, and South America. The flowers are trucked or flown in – often within 24 hours of picking – they are sold at auction and then they are loaded onto jets to be shipped around the world. All of the flowers at Aalsmeer are for export. Other flower auctions in Holland serve the regional markets.

FloraHolland, the group that runs Aalsmeer and five other auctions around the Netherlands, is a cooperative made up of 6000 growers. These growers sell all of their flowers and plants through the FloraHolland auctions. This structure has been in place for over one hundred years. It has helped to guarantee a stable, broad and international supply of flowers and plants with a pricing system that works for both growers and purchasers.

The Auction Halls – The flowers are sold via a Dutch-style auction. The buyers sit in an amphitheatre overlooking two large screens. On a track in the floor under each screen the trolleys of flowers that are up for auction are slowly pulled through. The large screens display all of the information on the product below including its name, price, grade, total number available, the supplier’s name, country of origin, and stage of maturity.

Central to this screen is the “clock” which represents the current price for a particular lot of flowers. The price starts high and then drops quickly. Each buyer sits at a computerized console. When he or she wishes to purchase flowers at a certain price they hit a button. Everyone is trying to get the product they need for their businesses at the lowest price. The clock represents a gamble. If you wait too long for the clock to drop to a good price someone else might buy the flowers out from under you. If you really need a certain flower then you better bid high! The clock moves quickly. Each lot of flowers is sold in mere seconds. Remember: 20 million flowers have to be sold every day!

There are other challenges to the bidding process. Each auction hall usually has two clocks selling different product simultaneously. One florist friend who has much experience with Dutch-style auction systems points out that you have to be careful when using such systems. Bidders, especially inexperienced ones, have been known to hit the wrong button and buy whatever is on the other clock in the room. There are no returns at a Dutch auction. Once you hit that button the product is yours!

The Warehouse Floor – The warehouse floor has two purposes. The first is to stage the flowers as they make their way towards the auction hall for auction. These long processions of carts are pulled along a track in the floor. In the picture at right you can see two processions heading towards the auction hall. The order of the carts is precisely timed so that when they enter the auction hall the data for that cart is shown on the overhead screen. How the Dutch organize it I have no idea but the system is impressive.

Once the flowers are sold in the auction hall the carts are moved out of the hall, they are labelled with the purchaser’s information and they are picked up by an auction employee on an electric-powered, orange vehicle. In some cases the employee will pick up just one cart. At other times entire train loads of carts can be seen traveling the warehouse floor. The result is a fascinating scene filled with countless orange vehicles zooming every which way pulling behind them colourful cart loads of flowers. Sometimes there are traffic jams and employees get stuck amongst other orange vehicles and flower carts. Sometimes they wait for the jam to clear and other times they gently nudge their way forward to push an obstructive flower cart out of the way.

The purpose of this colourful dance is to stage the flower carts for export. The carts of each purchaser are collected together in one place. From there the carts will be quickly loaded onto trucks or planes to be delivered across Europe and around the world!

Closer to Home: While flowers from Aalsmeer could easily end up in our local grocery stores and florist shops, many BC cut flower lovers will be interested to know that the majority of the flowers available in our region are sold through a similar Dutch-style flower auction in Burnaby. When I have gone to the auction with my florist friends at least 80% of the flowers sold there are from our large floriculture industry in the Fraser Valley. We actually ship a lot of product south into Washington, Oregon and even California!

Thank you to the UBC Alumni Association for asking me to host this tour!


A World-Class Bulb Garden Captures the Magic of Spring

Keukenhof Gardens is the world-famous bulb display gardens located in Lisse, not far from Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. The garden offers a matrix of lawns, mature trees, canals, a lake, pavillions, 15 kilometres of pathways, countless planting beds all over more than 60 acres. Each year more than 7 million tulips and other bulbs are planted by hand in diverse beds and areas of the garden to put on a spring extravaganza of colour and passion for 6-8 weeks during the season that the Dutch call “Tulip Time”. The result is a horticultural wonder of the world that draws 1 million visitors in March, April and May. Keukenhof is said to be the most photographed place in the world. Indeed, we spent a day there and my partner and I came away with nearly 1400 images! The best of these can be seen in our Keukenhof Photo Album.

In the 15th century the land that has now become a world-famous garden was the hunting grounds and source of cooking herbs for Jacqueline, the Countess of Hainault. It was the use of the land for culinary herbs that earned it the name “Keukenhof” or “Kitchen Garden”. Centuries later the Keukenhof Gardens is the largest flower garden in the world and has played host to more than 44 million visitors in its 60 year history.

Keukenhof Photo Album

View 254 Images of the Best Bulb Show on Earth

YouTube Videos

Keukenhof Gardens (Video 1): The Wilhelm-Alexander Pavilion
Keukenhof Gardens (Video 2): Visit one small but impressive area of the gardens
Keukenhof Gardens (Video 3): Bulb Plantings Near the Lake
Keukenhof Gardens (Video 4): Zocher Garden Area
Keukenhof Gardens (Video 5): One of my favourite displays

Floriade 2012: The World Horticultural Expo

Green Engine Area

Floriade is a world horticultural expo that takes place every 10 years in the Netherlands. It is designed to present the best of the horticultural and floricultural industry in Holland and around the world. Dutch companies are joined by companies from around the world to put on the show. They are also joined by numerous countries who build their own pavilions to show off their horticultural strengths as well as their culture and food. The result is a dynamic, cutting edge exposition of the world of plants.

Each time Floriade is held it moves to a different location within the country and is built from scratch, much as is done for world’s fairs such as Expo ’86. Floriade 2012 takes place near Venlo in an area that was previously agricultural fields and forests. The forests have been retained and the different areas of Floriade built in the spaces between.

Floriade 2012 is divided into various themed areas. My favourite, the Green Engine, is the focus of this installment. The Green Engine Area explores the relationship between nature and industry and the meeting of the two.

The central feature of the Green Engine Area is the Villa Flora greenhouse complex. This giant greenhouse had some of the best displays at Floriade featuring the innovative use of intriguing plants in whimsical and creative gardens and floral arrangements.

I loved the succulent garden, the old rusty greenhouse and the incredible floral arrangements and sculptures. Have a look at the 257 photos I have uploaded into the Green Engine Photo Album. The pictures speak for themselves and many have to be seen to be believed.

Floriade 2012 will run from April to October 2012 so if you’re heading to Europe you might want to swing by for a visit!

View 257 Amazing Photos in the Green Engine Photo Album


Gary Lewis began botanizing his local fields and forests around the age of four (first in Germany, then in Nova Scotia and Ontario), began collecting house plants at the age of 10 and began gardening at the age of 15. He holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Conservation Biology and a Masters of Science degree in Plant Ecology both from the University of British Columbia, training which, with its focus on the botany and ecology of wild plants, greatly informs his horticulture.

Gary became the owner of Phoenix Perennials in 2004 on his 28th birthday. Since that time he has greatly expanded the nursery to include one of the largest and most exciting selections of perennials in Canada. He strives to include cutting edge new perennials, tried and true garden stalwarts, and the rare and unusual in his plant offerings.

Gary is the Canada Region Director for the Perennial Plant Association, the North America-wide industry association that brings gardeners the Perennial Plant of the Year. He is Image Bank coordinator for E-Flora BC, an online atlas of BC native plants. He also serves on the Perennial and Bulb Selection Committee of Great Plant Picks, an educational awards program of the Miller Botanical Garden that works to build a comprehensive palette of outstanding plants for BC and Pacific Northwest gardens.

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