The biennial Flower Carpet, Brussels

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Once every two years the European capital’s historic centre is transformed from a grand cobblestoned courtyard into a vibrant, living floral tapestry of nearly a million begonias that attracts people from across the world.

 

A visit to Belgium should not be limited to indulging in the world’s best chocolates, exceptional seafood, or sampling one of the hundreds of kinds of beers the country has to offer, though these are all highly recommended. As well as culinary delights and historical treasures, Belgium has some more unusual attractions to offer its visitors. A perfect example is the staggering Flower Carpet in Brussels, a visual and scented celebration of one of the glories of Belgian horticulture: the begonia.


The begonia was discovered in South America in the 17th century by the botanist and naturalist, Charles Plumier. He named the plant after his botany hero, Michel Bégon, then Governor of Haiti, and himself a passionate horticulturalist and avid plant collector. Unfortunately, soon after discovering and naming the begonia, Mr. Plumier passed away, and scant information is to be found about the begonia during the entire 18th century.


Fast-forward to the 19th century, and Belgians had become expert begonia growers. Nowadays, 90% of the world’s begonia production (or 60 million tubers a year) is grown in Belgium. Only 3% of this total production stays in Belgium, with a massive 97% exported. Belgian growers have justly gained international reputation and fame, with the region of Ghent being the epicentre of the industry. Over the years, Ghent growers have developed innovative methods of cultivation, which have enabled them to cross-breed new species of begonias to answer every consumer’s needs. It certainly helps that the begonia is one of the most compliant plants.


One of these proficient Ghent growers is Johan Alterman. As a third generation grower, he is grateful that his father and grandfather have passed on their knowledge and skills to him. “The begonia is magnificent. If you treat her with care, she will do anything for you”, he says. He loves begonias in the first instance for their robustness: they are resistant to bad weather and strong sunshine, which guarantees a long life and freshness of the flower; and secondly for their amenable nature, they can effectively be grown to order. “Begonias are easily manipulated without tremendous efforts, as long as you are patient,” explains Alterman. Being both grower and flower artist gives him the advantage of cultivating the specific begonia required for a successful carpet. By using his three-generation knowledge and techniques, Alterman succeeded, for example, in growing begonias twice their usual size. And it is these flowers that are used to make the flower carpets.


Together with myriad other growers, Alterman’s begonias provide the vibrant colour for the Flower Carpet in Brussels. This particular flower carpet is made possible by the skilful, dedicated work of nearly a hundred highly experienced gardeners. It takes veritable magicians to compose such a masterpiece, and their enthusiasm and superior knowledge shines through. Watching the carpet being created is a sight in itself as, incredibly, this giant floral jigsaw takes just four hours to piece together.


Then for five days these begonias remain preserved  for viewers’ eyes. Stroll around the carpet to enjoy every detail of its beauty, and follow the path of exotic flowers that takes you across the Grand-Place to the Town Hall via the wedding room, magnificent staircases and Gothic rooms – rarely open to the public – to the balcony for a million-dollar panoramic view (which costs just €5).


This year’s designer of the Flower Carpet is Marc Schautteet. The 2012 display will comprise an extraordinary tapestry of shimmering patterns, recalling designs from tribes of the faraway African lands of Ethiopia, Congo, Nigeria, Botswana and Cameroon, spread over 2,000 sq. m. But it doesn’t stop in Brussels.


Thanks to the knowledge and technical skills, Belgian begonias travel worldwide, and flower carpets are unrolled around the globe, in Europe and beyond.


Johan Alterman

As theMayor of Brussels, Freddy Thielemans says, “The flower carpet that is unfurled every other year on the Grand-Place of Brussels always fills me with great emotion. Because of its colours and the extraordinary design of the original carpet that is its basis, of course, but also and especially because of the renown of this work – ephemeral but so admired – throughout the world.



Brussels, Belgium
Distance: 4,904 km
Flight Time: 7 hours, 5 minutes
Frequency: 5 flights a week

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