Creativity... In Full Bloom
The Zundert Bloemencorso
Story & Photography: Andrew William Herygers
Publisher: Dutch, The Magazine
Just like clockwork, on the first Sunday of every September, the population of the quaint Dutch farming town Zundert (Pop. 21,600), more than doubles in size due to the arrival of international tourists. They flock here from all corners of the world to experience, celebrate, and witness a spectacular floral design competition and festival known as the Zundert Bloemencorso. The picturesque town of Zundert is located just fifteen kilometres southwest of the city of Breda in the southern Dutch province of Noord Brabant. While the town is not well known to the general public it is however recognized in the art world as the birthplace of Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh who was born here on March 30, 1853. The downtown area is situated around the main street, Molenstraat, which is just a short distance from beautiful agricultural farmlands consisting of strawberry production, tree nurseries, fruit orchards, fragrant fields of dahlia flowers, and historic farmhouses. It smells good to be here! In these final days leading up to the competition, the main roads into town are closed to motorized traffic to make way for the festivities, pedestrians, and last minute event preparations. For the next three days the rush and madness of bloemencorso-fever heightens as eclectic markets spring up with lively buskers, musical acts, a festive carnival, and snack food vendors. Over the past eighty-two years Zundert has gained international recognition with its annual flower parade, earning it the distinction of being the longest running and largest floral design competition of its kind in the world. Most recently, in 2012, it became the first Dutch cultural tradition to be recognized by UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
As the story goes, the Zundert Bloemencorso was inspired by a visit to the area from Queen Wilhelmina in 1936. It was during this special occasion that local families decided to pay tribute to the Queen with a presentation of their dahlia decorated bicycles and wagons. And thus, a seedling of a cultural and artistic tradition was planted and grew from these modest beginnings. Each year thereafter, the tradition continued with flower wagons growing ever larger in scale and creativity. The Zundert Bloemencorso continues to top itself in scope of originality, visual impact, and mechanical ingenuity and has evolved into a highly competitive and respected design activity. Twenty neighbourhood teams compete against each other for the honour and recognition of being awarded the coveted first prize. The event has become an important social and cultural activity for families and participants of all ages and on three special occasions it has been themed to celebrate and pay tribute to the town’s famous son, Vincent van Gogh. For residents of Zundert, the bloemencorso has grown into a year-round planning and community building activity. During the winter months local designers present concepts and three dimensional designs to their neighbourhood teams who then review the submitted designs and make a selection by committee. In the springtime, each neighbourhood begins community fundraising activities such as BBQ’s and contests in order to gather supplies and build their construction tents where production will take place. In June, small scale three-dimensional models of the twenty chosen concepts are constructed and revealed to the public at an exhibition in the town’s cultural centre.
For the next three months, the incredible dahlia creations are built in construction tents which serve as fully functional workshops with all the mechanical and carpentry tools one would need to build a massive flower sculpture. The tents have their own electrical power supply, interior lighting, and usually a designated kitchen and dining area for preparing tasty snacks and refreshments for the teams. In advance of the festival, the proper colours of flowers need to be planned for and are grown in adjacent fields for close proximity to the construction tent. Many people are needed to pick and sort the dahlias from the fields and cart them to the tents via tractors and wagons where they are trimmed and each prepared with a small spike. Only the best quality dahlias are selected and organized into large plastic tubs and creatively labeled to identify the various colours (eg. Beatrix, Golden Scepter, Yellow Heaven, etc). Although dahlias are the only type of flowers used, some teams have also experimented with alternative materials such as potatoes, coffee beans, onions, brussels sprouts, seafood shells, and plant leaves. A myriad of skills are required in the creation of a bloemencorso float from artistic painting to carpentry, welding, sculpture, and mechanics. Inside the construction tent sparks fly as a group of welders construct and bend the skeletal wire-frames into three-dimensional shapes. Workers then apply styrofoam, cardboard, and paper-mâché to give final shape and surface over the underlying metal framework. From this point, colour coded patterns and designs are painted to indicate where the various coloured dahlias should be placed. Within the past ten years, the bloemencorso floats have become more animated with mechanical engineering playing a much more prominent role in the conceptual design. Most of the floats are powered and operated internally by human force via a system of gears, pulleys, wheels, and levers. Projected sounds, music, and on-board animators sometimes play an important role in the conceptual aspect of the massive mechanical flower creations.
The next few days and nights are a beehive of activity as the entire town pulls together, in their competing teams, to complete a total of twenty mind-boggling flower floats, some consisting of three separate components, and each created with upwards of seven hundred thousand fresh dahlias. An insider trick is to tape a five cent coin to your thumb to help with the task of pinning each flower to the sculpture with a nail. Excitement spills from the construction tents as neighbours and relatives of all ages contently reunite to sing Dutch pop and polka tunes while attaching thousands of vibrant dahlias to every square inch of a giant gorilla’s face. The amount of teamwork, dedication, and sheer creativity continues to amaze me. Throughout the evening purple, magenta, and white dahlia petals rain down from the upper scaffolding levels. Periodic rounds of beer are served to the workers and makeshift coffee, juice, and snack stands are built into all levels of the scaffolding platforms for easy access. Later in the evening everyone takes a snack break where bread rolls and groentesoep (met balletjes) is served. The dedicated teams will continue working until the early morning, not until every dahlia is perfectly placed, and the overall structure has been inspected and tested many times over. Every man, woman, and child plays a specific role in the bloemencorso which has become a major homecoming tradition for former residents, friends, and family.
As the sun rises, on the day of judgment, the proud creators release their colossal dahlia creations from the construction tents. The towering figures begin carefully rolling their way through the countryside towards the town’s centre. The floats are first pulled by tractors to the downtown core and then pushed and guided throughout the inner streets by pure human power. It’s a tight squeeze to turn on some of the smaller streets and so there are strict size regulations in place (9m tall x 19m long) for the float’s design. In the downtown area, thousands of shutterbugs and curious eyes strain for their first glimpse of the final creations. The parade kicks-off in full force featuring the rhythmic beats of some of Europe’s finest percussive marching bands who perform in between each of the floats. As the floats make their way down Molenstraat they briefly stop in front of the city hall (Gemeentehuis) for the huge crowd to feast their eyes. An independent jury consisting of artists and creative professionals have the daunting task of judging the floats based on a long list of well-established criteria. The judges scores are announced one by one in front of the town’s city hall as emotions start to flow by the designers who have invested an entire year of hard work and planning. Afterwards, the floats remain on display in the exhibition grounds for a two-day period and for all to appreciate up-close. On the final evening, the town celebrates in true Dutch style as the late-night festivities spill out onto Molenstraat and into the early morning hours. On the final morning the floats are demolished one by one. Planning for next year’s bloemencorso will begin soon after with new concepts being drafted on napkins and computers. In a few weeks’ time, the children of Zundert get their turn to show their creativity when the Kindercorso, a smaller version takes place. Some of these inspired children will one day grow up to become successful bloemencorso designers. And so the tradition continues and is passed down from one generation to next. Long live the Zundert Bloemencorso!