The biennial Flower Carpet, Brussels
Written by Annabell Van den Berghe
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.
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.
Officially, the first Floral Carpet was created in 1971, but this was a culmination of a series of carpets that had been created by the Ghent grower, E. Stautermans. Stautermans had been creating small carpets since the 1950s to promote his own business, but their popularity spawned commissions to create ever larger and more illustrious carpets of begonias across not only Belgium, but in cities such as Paris, London, Vienna, and even Buenos Aires. Some of the pieces were larger than even Brussels, with a masterpiece in 1973 in Ghent measuring 164 x 42m. However, as E. Stautermans himself says, “Nowhere is the carpet more beautiful and distinguished than in the unique, ancient surroundings of the Grand-Place in Brussels.
The Grand Place is the central and finest square in Brussels. Surrounded by beautiful buildings, the square is one of Belgium’s most important tourist destinations and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the 10th century, Charles, Duke of Lower Lorraine, took possession and constructed a fort where the Senne River became navigable and, as such, planted the seed of what would become Brussels. By the end of the 11th century, an open-air marketplace – called Nedermerckt – emerged on a dried-out marsh, and became a centre of production for tapestry, lace, and other luxury goods.
The market was well situated along an important commercial road that connected the prosperous regions of the Rhineland and the County of Flanders. In the 17th century, the market was bombarded but rebuilt immediately thereafter, becoming the glorious square as we know it today.
The Flower Carpet will be constructed on August 14, 2012. Starting at 1pm the first flowers are put in place by around 100 people. The official opening is at 10pm with fireworks and a concert from Belgian-African band, Mixtuur.
Enjoy a panoramic view of the Flower Carpet for €5 (free for children under 12), from the balcony of Hotel de Ville on August 15, 16, 17 or 18, from 9 am to 11 pm. Every night at 10, 10.30 and 11 pm a sound and light spectacle takes place that truly highlights the colourful beauty of the Flower Carpet.