Tulips in bloom, but flower show cancelled

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The tulips are out, resplendent in the sunshine with their multicoloured petals, a fragrant carpet decorating the bottom of centuries-old trees.

The weather is unseasonably warm and dry, perfect for a spring festival.

After a long winter in Belgium, springtime has arrived at the month-long Floralia flower show.

The festival takes place every year on the grounds of the Chateau de Grand-Bigard castle near Brussels.

But the coronavirus crisis has struck, and Floralia’s 17th edition – scheduled to take place between 4 April and 3 May – is cancelled.

Belgium declared a coronavirus lockdown on 18 March. The measures were initially due to be lifted on 5 April but the continuing health emergency pushed authorities to extend it until 3 May and ban all festivals until at least the end of August.

Xavier Pelgrims de Bigard inherited the Chateau de Grand-Bigar property from his grandfather, who bought it 150 years ago as the family’s summer residence.

Pelgrims de Bigard still lives here with his wife; it was his idea to launch Floralia 17 years ago. He can’t hide his disappointment over this year’s cancellation.

“This is an exceptionally catastrophic year. The whole country has been affected by coronavirus.”

“The day before the opening date everything was ready, we were all ready. Just then – (Belgium adopted) lockdown measures that forbid public events in parks. For us this is clearly very sad but also for those visitors who had already reserved their entrance tickets a long time ago.”

The organizer says every year almost 50,000 people visit Floralia from countries such as Japan, Russia, India, the United States and from all over Belgium.

Entrance tickets go from 12 euro (13 US dollars) per person for groups to 14 euro (15 US dollars) for individuals.

What makes Floralia unique is both its floral variety and its setting.

The show takes place on a 14-acre wide property that includes a 17th century castle and a large pond encircling the entire area.

And then there’s the flowers, springing from more than 1.5 million bulbs, with their breathtaking colours and unusual shapes.

Pelgrims de Bigard speaks proudly of the blooms.

“Floralia is an exhibition of springtime bulbs – essentially tulips, narcissus, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, et cetera – that are planted anew every year.”

“All these bulbs come exclusively from the Netherlands. The Netherlands is practically the only producer of tulip bulbs. We work with over 80 Dutch producers and we plant more than 400 different species of flowers,” he explains.

It takes 11 months of work to set up Floralia. Pelgrims de Bigard takes part in its preparation along with a crew of gardeners.

The bulbs are imported and delivered by truck and carefully planted according to their colour variety.

The result is a choreography of hued flowerbeds strategically arranged to please the eye.

Lulled by a soft wind, hyacinths and narcissus send their intoxicating smell floating in the air.

Some daffodils are already wilting away, reaching a premature beginning and end of their life cycle.

Most other flowers here have already blossomed, weeks ahead of their usual annual cycle, Pelgrims de Bigard notices.    

“There’s a defining feature this year: the season started much earlier. Is that because of climate change? Possibly. We’re the 9th of April and all the flowers are already well opened.”

“This is very, very early in the season and quite unusual. The previous years many flowers weren’t open at the beginning of the exhibition but this year we see that the opposite has happened,” the Floralia organizer says.

At the end of each season, all bulbs are uprooted to leave room for new flowers and the following season.

Coronavirus may be imposing an international lockdown on people, but nature here is alive and well. And there will be a new springtime show in 2021.

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