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[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
Visitors to Floriade relax in the Flower Valley amid its million-plus tulips and grape hyacinths that spell, in letters 10 feet wide, the exhibition’s motto.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002


From vegetable gardens to vineyards, a world floral extravaganza in the Netherlands isn't limited to what the Dutch grow.

HAARLEMMERMEER, Netherlands -- The Dutch aren't deterred by little things such as the North Sea washing over their country: Just build 1,500 miles of dikes and reclaim the land. Then keep up the maintenance and farming for eight centuries.

So staging a once-every-10-years, nature-based, international exhibition is no big deal.

That explains why the multiple successes of the six-month floral extravaganza named Floriade easily outnumber the silly and pretentious stuff.

The idea for staging such an exposition originated in the 1950s, when Dutch officials figured they could attract attention to the Netherlands' horticultural industry by staging the first agriculture-themed world exhibition since before World War I.

Their effort was mounted in Rotterdam in 1960. It was so successful that the government decided to organize a similar event every 10 years.

This in turn drew the attention of other nations, and now there are four of these horticultural events each decade. Following Floriade (a madeup word, which is pronounced floor-ee-AH-duh), the next will be in Germany, and two will be held later this decade in Asia.

Floriade opened April 6 and is the Netherlands' fifth. It runs until Oct. 20 on a site less than 20 miles from Amsterdam.

No longer limited to what the Dutch grow and sell, Floriade has presentations by 29 other nations on four continents -- from Canada to the Czech Republic, from China to Chile. Displays range from vegetable gardens to vineyards.

All of this covers much of 160 acres. That's about 83 times as much land as Raymond James Stadium occupies.

The whole parcel was under the sea 150 years ago. The huge park is still 12 feet below sea level.

What does that mean?

Despite the agricultural variety on display, the crowd pleaser is clearly the vast spread of that Dutch trademark, the tulip. In the area dubbed Flower Valley, about 130,000 tulips are blooming, orange petals against yellow ones, purple flanked by red, two-tone rose and cream tulips next to two-tone red and yellow ones.

Some 900,000 grape hyacinths outline the flower beds. All of this is painted on a lush grass canvas that flows down a gentle hill toward a large lake.

Typical of the thorough planning here, the tulip bulbs were sown neither haphazardly nor merely planted in orderly rows. Instead, the blooms spell out, in letters 10 feet wide, the theme of Floriade: "Feel the art of nature."

Exactly what and how visitors are supposed to feel is pretty much left up to them.

Signs and handouts printed in English mention creating a "sustainable living environment" and hint at urban appreciation of nature in 2010. The visitor is supposed to use all five senses to "feel" nature -- that includes tasting it in one of the dining areas where the menus are restricted to foods from plants, but no meats.
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[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
Chrit Rousseau moves toward his paints in front of a vivid floral work he created earlier this month at Floriade.

Three easy pieces

Floriade is divided into three major display areas. If "Feel the art of nature" sounds like a 21st century revision of I'm Okay, You're Okay, then the labels for these three areas are right from the Hardy Boys: Near the Roof, By the Hill and On the Lake.

The Roof refers to the glass structure that covers a fully enclosed area and extends to cover more exhibits in a space without walls.

The Roof itself measures about 330 feet by 915 feet, and beneath it are dozens of green exhibits, plus trickling fountains and artificial waterfalls.

These exhibits are staged by nations and by commercial landscaping or horticultural interests. Plants here range from greenhouse-delicate flowers to 20-foot-tall evergreens.

The United States' display is under the exposed area of the Roof, which is quite close to the park's northern entrance. This exhibit was created by the nonprofit Southern U.S. Trade Association, which promotes the export of food and agricultural products. Among the participants and financial partners are the U.S. Department of Agriculture and about a dozen companies.

A sign here says the theme of the plantings is "an American Quilt Garden which strives to . . . bring together diverse colors, patterns and textures into a beautiful cohesive whole, much like the diversity of plants, environments and peoples that make up the United States itself."

Plants include cypress trees, azaleas, rhododendrons, magnolias, heliopsis and asters, plus a variety of grasses and ivies imaginatively trained to vertical grids.

Some other national exhibits are more blatantly commercial. The Tunisian display focuses on the nation's flowers from which perfume oils are derived. The Tunisians also sell tiny glass vials of the perfume oils, finger rings and 2-foot-tall pottery jugs that could be merely decorative or could hold plants.

Easy to miss in the three routes away from the Roof is an unappealing Quonset hut that holds one of the hidden jewels of Floriade: Chrit Rousseau. An artist who lives in the Dutch town of Maastricht, Rousseau and his boldly colorful paintings were on display as Floriade opened.

Taking a break from working on a 6-foot-wide canvas of, naturally, floral images, Rousseau walked me about the temporary studio, furnished with odds and ends from the former cattle barn that he works in full time.

In a glass-fronted case were shelves filled with skulls of small mammals, plus ceramic plates he had painted for fun. Two racks were filled with part of Rousseau's collection of native and uniform hats.

All of these pieces, he said, provided inspiration for him.

So, too, did his trips to Mexico, Libya and Brazil, as revealed in a handsome coffee-table book of his works filled with paintings done after his journeys.

"Seeing and visiting the people" in less-developed areas of less-developed nations fills him with creativity, Rousseau explained.

He added, "I love colors" -- obvious in his large works on display here.

It was a clever idea that Rousseau come to represent the nation's Limburg region: His work is vibrant. However, other districts and private companies have been far less clever. Their low-tech, motion-simulator rides through vegetable processing and what is titled Water Wonder Land, an industrial film on reclaiming the land from the sea, are almost boring to anyone who has been to a Disney World-style park.

Moving away from the Roof and approaching the second area, the Hill, is an interesting look at keeping cities green, in both public and private spaces.

Ten islands, each roughly 190 square feet, have been created by channeling fresh water through the area, a reflection of the traditional use of canals to irrigate crop land.

Six of the islands are to be landscaped by various governments. Visitors also can walk through various structures on the other four islands, together referred to as the Green City.

On of these futuristic structures is a small home suspended between four tall trees. Another island has a multistory building with rooftop gardens of low-maintenance, indigenous plants. At ground level, this building is bordered by several tiny gardens, designed by different landscapers. The seating in these spots ranges from partly carved and polished chunks of wood to large metal chairs.

According to Floriade press officer Martin Hoekstra, these plots are particularly aimed at showing Dutch visitors what they might do with "the tiny garden spaces we all have."

Just beyond the islands, the midsection of Floriade is dominated by the enormous Big Spotters' Hill, literally the observation tower.

It is about 100 feet tall -- "big" indeed in this flat land. But the hill seems immense because designer Auke de Vries was inspired by the Great Pyramid at Giza and made the base of this hill equal to the Pyramid's dimensions, 759 feet along on each edge.

The hill was fashioned from 550,000 cubic yards of sand -- enough, Hoekstra said, to fill a row of dump trucks stretching from Amsterdam to Paris.

The construction took 21/2 years because the stability of the mound was a concern.

"We had to put down the first layer of dirt (gathered from constructions sites) and then wait three months, to see if would be like plum pudding," and spread out or sink into the ground. "Then each succeeding layer was like that."

As with all good pyramids, this one contains treasure: Time capsules hold items ranging from a Barbie doll to drawings by the architect's children to expansion plans for the nearby Schipol airport.

All of which is likely to make more sense to its discoverers than the metallic sculpture that squats on the flat top of the Hill. A curved, yellow, irregularly shaped dome hangs from a metal stand; on the underside of the dome is painted a labeled version of our solar system.

There is no explanation for this provided to viewers. But a news release states that Hill architect deVries, who also created the sculpture, "is concerned with an intangible aspect of nature -- space, that strange nothingness above our heads. (The hill and sculpture together) is a place where the coming together of the sky and the Earth are made tangible and visible from near or far in a very special way."

From silly to sublime

Whatever. But neither the pyramid nor its sculpture seem to have anything to do with growing plants. The third region, By the Lake, compensates for that.

Visitors cross a bridge over a highway to reach the Flower Valley, filled with all those tulips and grape hyacinths. On the chilly day I visited, there was little floral fragrance to enjoy.

Beyond the huge flower beds are more displays created by various nations. Among those with imagination are the side-by-side exhibits of Hungary and Austria.

The Hungrian display includes a number of carved wooden posts stuck in the ground -- signs say these represent folktale images -- and an attractive hut, open on the ends with curved wooden sides reaching to a peak. This is symbolic of old barns.

Inside the barn are the sort of "because-we-have-to" statements found at many national displays. The wording on these signs suffer from exuberance combined with national pride.

For instance, a Hungarian sign states: "The tasty Hungarian sour cherry plays an important role in health preservation due to its nutritional quality." There is no further explanation.

Similarly, a sign at the Belgium display boasts: "In horticulture, Flanders is a pioneer in Europe and the world. Flanders is the world's third-largest exporter of houseplants and the absolute world market leader for azaleas."

How many houseplants or azaleas this might be is not spelled out, nor is it mentioned how financially important horticulture might be to the Netherlands' small neighbor.

The Austrians felt less compelled to shout their accomplishments and instead have erected colorfully painted wooden noisemakers, flapping pieces of board turned over by windvanes. Signs explain the noise from these klapotetz chases "thieving birds" from vineyards. To illustrate, the Austrians have planted a small grape arbor.

Farther along the curve of the large lake are the representatives of Asian nations including Japan, Indonesia, China and India. Side by side, these countries have built highly ornamented wooden structures in the vernacular architecture.

Statues, ritual gates, pebble gardens -- it all adds up to an invitation to a way of life rather than a hyperbole-filled placard about plant sales, in contrast to the other two sections.

Coming, as it does, at one end of the Floriade park, it seems a relaxing way to leave the gardens.
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If you go

Floriade is open 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through Oct. 20. A one-day ticket is 17 euros, about $15.25; admission for children ages 4-12 is half that price.

GETTING THERE: The exhibition is in the suburban district of Harlemmermeer . Bus tours can be purchased in Amsterdam; I saw one priced at 32 euros, including the admission. Or you can take the quick train from Amsterdam's Central Station to Amsterdam Airport Schipol and, just outside the entrance, ride the modern and rapid Zuidtangent bus 11 stops to the Floriade's north entrance and its ticket booths. A round-trip train ticket and round-trip bus ticket total 8.60 euros, or about $7.75.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go to the Web site www.floriade.com, e-mail to info@floriade.com, or call 031 23 562 2002.

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