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Crown princess Juliana in 1945 said thanks with loads of tulips

Series of postage stamps celebrate 50th anniversary of Canadian Tulip Festival Canadians turned Dutch gift into major annual event

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

Who has not heard it in commercials by florists, 'Say it with flowers.' Dutchman would say, 'Zeg het met bloemen.' It would be fair to state that the Dutch pioneered the habit, if not the concept, of bringing home a plant or cut flowers on a late Friday afternoon, or for any other occasion. After all, the Netherlands is, albeit unofficially, the flower capital of the world. Canadians over the past decades have become very flower conscious as well. The fact that Dutch royalty nudged them toward that position might be less well known. This article highlights a very unique story, a story in which one Dutch woman truly 'said it with flowers' - tulips, to be precise. That statement initiated a remarkable chain of events.

Dutchmen and their flowers are inseparable. Many globetrotters can attest to this. It must have happened many times that a traveler from the Netherlands would proudly announce to his fellow passengers that he was a bulb salesman. No, he wasn't selling light bulbs, although there were plenty of Dutchmen selling those too, but flowering bulbs like tulips. As a matter of fact, before the Second World War, every year a small battalion of Dutch bulb salesmen would travel on ocean liners to North America to make their rounds. When the Netherlands was invaded by Hitler's armies in 1940, some of these men were abroad - at least one of them was in Canada at the time - and therefore cut off from their homeland.

The royal connection

Of course, the war affected many more than just the bulb salesmen. The Dutch government-in-exile (it was located in London, England from May 1940 to May 1945) deemed it wise for Princess Juliana and her two small daughters to relocate from their hideaway in England to Canada even though the journey across the ocean at that time was extremely dangerous. In June 1942, they made it safely across to Halifax on the navy ship Sumatra, which was accompanied by the Dutch destroyer Jacob van Heemskerck. The party of the princesses then traveled to Ottawa where they received a warm welcome.

The Canadian capital was their home for almost three years. During that time Princess Juliana kept a busy schedule. Aside from caring for her growing family - Prinses Margriet was born on January 19, 1943 - she visited a battalion of Dutch conscripts which was stationed in Stratford, Ontario, and warmly received many Dutch nationals in her home in Ottawa. Ottawa officials and the public alike were well aware of their royal guests, who at times were joined by Prince Bernhard and Queen Wilhelmina. The interest in Princess Margriet's baptism, for example, was considerable.

During these years of exile, the people of Ottawa were very hospitable. The Canadian government led by example and even flew the Dutch tricolour on parliament's Peace Tower while its carillon 'banged' out Dutch music at the news of Princess Margriet's birth. Gestures like these created a lasting bond which was reinforced as Canadian soldiers inched their way towards Nazi-occupied Dutch soil in 1944 and 1945 in many hard-fought battles, and as the news of numerous casualties poured in.

Tulips and more tulips

The Ottawa years of the Dutch royal family were not only significant to Dutch history. They also were to have a significant impact in Canada. It was not just the fact that the House of Orange produced the first and only princess born within Canadian borders. It went well beyond that, as can be established by the history of post-war Dutch emigration to Canada. Starting in 1947, about 200.000 Dutchmen settled here. It is safe to say that Princess Juliana's actions after she returned to her liberated country, influenced future relations between the two nations.

The extent of the goodwill between Ottawa (and Canada as a whole, of course) and the Dutch royal family had much to do with a simple formula: 'Say it with flowers!' Had Juliana donated bouquets of flowers, the gesture in all likelihood would have been forgotten after a while. But once she was home again in the Netherlands, she expressed her gratitude to Ottawa and its citizenry by sending the city 100,000 tulip bulbs. The bulbs were a mixed blessing of sorts, since they need to be planted and tended and require a significant waiting period before producing a single flower. To put it another way, it was a gift that put Canadians to work. The following year (1946), Juliana donated another 20,500 bulbs, with the request that a portion of these be planted at the grounds of the Ottawa Civic Hospital where she had given birth to Margriet. At the same time, she promised Ottawa an annual gift of tulips during her lifetime to show her lasting appreciation for the capital's war-time hospitality.

Flower beds attract attention

In all fairness to other tulip contributors, it should be noted that although they are the biggest suppliers, Dutch tulip-growers are not the only ones in the business. Already in 1941, 1942 and 1943, when access to Dutch tulips was cut off by Hitler, the Messrs. Seymour Cobley Ltd. of England donated 83,000 tulips to the capital as a token of appreciation for Canada's war effort. Ottawa sources do not report any English donations beyond those years but they do mention donations by the Associated Bulbs Growers of Holland, starting in 1952.

Even before tulips arrived in large numbers, Ottawa had established a reputation for beautiful floral displays in its parkways. The city built on that reputation when tulips were donated from the above noted sources (they apparently did not mind the back-breaking job of planting the bulbs). Through the Federal District Commission, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission (NCC), the city went a step further when it decided to purchase additional tulip bulbs, planting them along its parkways, creating 'long sweeps of colour.' The designs of the city's garden architect, labeled the Greber plan, attracted wide attention, with thousands of people coming to Ottawa just to look. Another stalwart and key figure in all this is world-renowned Ottawa photographer Malak Karsh, whose tulip pictures appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout Canada and abroad. 


The business community of Ottawa through its Chamber of Commerce saw an opportunity to capitalize on these floral displays by initiating a festival in 1952, which they called the Canadian Tulip Festival. This spring festival, with a combination of more hard work and some fun, has celebrated Ottawa's love affair with tulips ever since and is, of course, also a great marketing vehicle for (Dutch) flowering bulbs which are purchased in large quantities every year.  The tulip festival is now billed as North America's largest and is unmatched by its 'rival,' the festival in the formerly Dutch settlement of Holland, Michigan, which is one of the larger events in all of the United States. It safely can be stated that the Canadian Tulip Festival is unequalled in scope next to Keukenhof in Lisse, the Netherlands and its surrounding flowering bulbs fields.

Ottawa's relationship with tulips so far has been one noted for maturity and professionalism. Ottawa's tulip suppliers actually bid for the delivery contracts which are hotly contested by a number of (Dutch-)Canadian bulb companies.

The Dutch have not always been so fortunate! While they have a much, much longer relationship with this turban-shaped flower, it also has been one in which fortunes were made and lost. In fact, almost 360 years ago tulip bulbs created quite a stir among the Dutch well-to-do merchant class when bulbs became the subject of intense financial speculation. At the height of this madness, in 1637 (some forty to fifty years after the tulip was introduced to the Dutch public), a single bulb cost a fortune. One ledger entry sums it up well: '2 loads of wheat, 4 loads of rye, 4 fat oxen, 8 fat pigs, 12 fat sheep, 2 hogshead of wine, 4 barrels of 8-florin of beer, 2 barrels of butter, 1,000 lb. of cheese, a complete bed, a suit of clothes and a silver beaker...' - can you imagine? Like the Sultan of Turkey had done years earlier as the result of a similar craze in his country, the Dutch States-General was obliged to step in and put the tulip market back in order by introducing price controls. Meanwhile, many people were wiped out financially, just like in a Bre-X, Enron or Nortel type of crash at the stock market. Holland eventually overcame tulip craze related problems and back-breaking cultivation of tulips eventually grew into a major industry. The Netherlands is now the world's largest tulip producer - over 3,000 varieties make for a very interesting business, as is amplified by the elusive centuries-long drive to develop a black tulip - and exports billions of bulbs yearly.


Over the years, there have been several initiatives by Ottawa officials to recognize Princess Juliana's role in the history of the city. In 1967, a plaque commemorating Juliana's gift of tulips to the Capital was unveiled in a special ceremony in the Dows Lake area. Two years later, Robert Haig published a book, entitled 'Ottawa, City of the Big Ears,' which has some interesting information on Juliana's donation. Still, when inquiring about the involvement of Princess Juliana with Ottawa's tulip scene very few people were able to provide any details beyond a general hearsay story.

Ottawa's tulip legend had already taken on its own life. The Canadian Tulip Festival, to its credit, does state time and again how this 'legend' started, but the media is often too busy gushing over the beauty of tulips to get the story right. 

However, Dutch-born Canadian newspaper editor and popular author Albert VanderMey has worked for years to create an awareness of this unique aspect of Canada-Netherlands relations. Publishers in the Netherlands released two books by VanderMey published on the Royal family's life in exile in Canada. A third volume was published by Vanderheide (the publishers of the Dutch/English-language newspaper the Windmill Herald for North America). The book,When Canada Was Home, is written in the English language so that everyone in on the continent can discover how a 'down-to-earth' royal thank-you keeps a lot of people quite busy so many decades later.

In May, Ottawa’s love story with tulips will turn another page when Canada Post unveils a series of postage stamp celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Tulip Festival. The brightly coloured tulip stamps certainly will be the most exuberant exclamation of what a royal “Thank You” with flowering bulbs could lead to. The stamp series is a homage too to the decades of Canada Netherlands friendship. It's truly amazing what can happen when you “Say it with flowering bulbs.”

Also available: Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & The Extraordinary Passions It Aroused by Mike Dash.

This article was published in 1995; updated for website.