How Tulips Helped Save Holland from Starvation

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When tulip bulbs are properly prepared, they are edible.

Did you know that the tulip bulbs are edible, that is, if you prepare them properly? Well, the Dutch people learned this the hard way.

The Hunger Winter

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Children and the elderly were most at risk during the Hunger Winter.

The winter of 1944-1945, just before the end of World War II, is known in Holland as the Hunger Winter (“Hongerwinter”). The Nazis, who still occupied most of the country, cut off food deliveries from agricultural areas as punishment for the reluctance of the Dutch people to support their efforts. To make matters worse, it was a particularly cold and snowy winter and heating supplies were also limited. Over 4.5 million people were affected by the resulting famine and it’s estimated that more than 22,000 of them died of malnutrition or of related causes.

But due to a lack of manpower, Holland’s bulb growers had not been able to plant their bulbs previous fall and a huge stock of bulbs, usually somewhat dehydrated or even rotting, lay untouched in warehouses. Most bulbs such as hyacinths and daffodils are toxic to humans, but tulip bulbs are edible if they are carefully prepared.

Realizing the bulbs could save many lives, the Office of Food Supply of the Dutch government published a guide explaining how to prepare tulip bulbs and suggesting recipes. Given the lack of other commodities, the most popular recipe was simply to grate the bulbs into flour (you had to remove the peel and the bitter yellow center, where the toxins are concentrated) and add salt, then mix this powder with water to make small loaves of bread. A priest who survived the Hunger Winter as a child described the bread as tasting like sawdust… but at least it supplied vital calories and minerals and cut the people’s hunger.

Help Finally Comes

Shortly before the liberation of the country in May 1945, deliveries of flour finally arrived from Sweden and the Germans let them through, ending the famine. But the Dutch who survived will never forget their Hunger Winter nor the tulip bulbs that helped saved them.20161010a

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