Every year, the National Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization promoting the pleasures of home gardening, selects one annual, one perennial, one vegetable, one shrub and one bulb to celebrate. It’s a great way to discover a new plant or to learn a bit more about a plant you may already be growing.
Let’s look at the bulb chosen for 2021, the hyacinth.
Hyacinths are spring-flowering bulbs that are treasured by gardeners for their heavenly fragrance.
Overview and History
Flower lovers began cultivating hyacinths more than 400 years ago. During the 18th century, they were the most popular spring bulbs in the world, and Dutch growers offered more than 2000 named cultivars. Today, there are fewer than 50 cultivars in commercial production, but the hyacinth’s beauty and sweet perfume are as enchanting as ever.
Commonly called Dutch hyacinths or garden hyacinths, they are hybrids of a single species (Hyacinthus orientalis) that grows wild in Turkey, Syria, and other areas in the eastern Mediterranean.
Basic Types and Variety Names
Today’s garden hyacinths look very different from the wild species. After centuries of breeding, they have taller flower spikes and much larger, mostly double florets that are tightly packed along the stem. Each hyacinth bulb produces a single 8 to 12″ (20 to 30 cm) tall flower stalk and 4 to 6 straplike leaves. The blossoms open in mid-spring, at the same time as daffodils and early tulips.
Hyacinths come in rich, saturated colors. The most popular cultivars are shades of purple and blue, which include ‘Blue Jacket’ (royal blue), ‘Delft Blue’ (cerulean), and ‘Aida’ (violet-blue). Other colors are equally lovely and suggest many creative pairings. These include ‘Woodstock’ (burgundy), ‘Jan Bos’ (hot pink), ‘Aiolos’ (white), ‘Gypsy Queen’ (peach), and ‘City of Haarlem’ (pale yellow).
The Legend of Hyacinthus
The Greeks, apparently, have a legend for everything and that includes how the hyacinth came to be.
Hyacinthus was a Spartan youth of great beauty and athletic ability, beloved by the Greek god Apollo. One day, as they practiced throwing the discus together, Hyacinthus was struck in the head by the heavy disc (one version of the legend has it that the god of the west wind, Zephyrus, jealous, blew on the discus so that it deviated from its projected path) and died. From his blood sprang a beautiful flower, the hyacinth.
How to Grow Hyacinths in the Garden
Hyacinth bulbs are planted in mid to late fall, at the same time as tulips and daffodils. Choose a planting location with well-drained soil that never gets soggy. Full sun is best, though hyacinths will also grow in light shade. Plant the bulbs in groups of 5 or more, spaced about 5″ (12 cm) apart on center, burying them with the pointed end up about 4 to 5″ (10 to 12 cm) deep. In hardiness zones 6 and warmer, hyacinths grow well in outdoor containers, on their own, or mixed with other spring bulbs. Consider planting extra hyacinth bulbs to use as cut flowers and enjoy indoors.
Hyacinths are hardy in hardiness zones 4 to 8, even zone 3 with a good winter mulch. But they do require a cold winter. In warmer climates, the bulbs need to be pre-chilled in a refrigerator before planting or they won’t bloom.
Like tulips, hyacinths always look their best the first spring after planting. For this reason, some gardeners plant fresh bulbs every year or two. While the bulbs will usually rebloom for several years, sometimes even decades, they will gradually revert to a simpler form, with more stems per bulb and single florets that are more widely spaced along the stem. Some people find this form, much like the wild hyacinth, more attractive, as it is less rigid than the first-year flowers.
To help the bulbs save energy for future flowers, cut off the flower stalks after the blossoms fade and allow the foliage to grow until it dies back in early summer.
How to Force Hyacinths for Indoor Blooms
Growing hyacinths indoors lets you get a jump on spring, with fragrant blooms that last for weeks. Plant the bulbs in late fall. Use pots that have drainage holes on the bottom and are approximately 6″ (15 cm) deep. Fill them with moist growing mix (not garden soil) and plant the bulbs 2″ (5 cm) apart with the top of the bulb at or just below (about 1″/2.5 cm) below the soil surface. Water lightly.
To bloom properly, potted hyacinth bulbs must be exposed to consistently cold temperatures (40–45°F/4–7°C) for a minimum of 12–14 weeks. An unheated garage can work as long as the bulbs do not freeze. A refrigerator is another option if it doesn’t contain ripening fruit, which can damage the bulbs. After this chilling period, move the pots to a sunny window and enjoy watching them come into flower.
The Other Hyacinths
The name “hyacinth” is commonly applied to other plants. Here are some examples:
- California hyacinth (Brodiaea coronaria): New World bulb.
- Desert hyacinth (Cistanche tubulosa): arid climate bulb.
- Grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.): popular spring bulb.
- Hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus): ornamental and edible climbing plant.
- Indian hyacinth or wild hyacinth (Camassia spp.): New World bulb.
- Summer hyacinth or Cape hyacinth (Galtonia candicans): summer bulb.
- Water hyacinth (Pontederia crassipes, formerly Eichhornia crassipes): floating aquatic plant.
- Wood hyacinth or bluebell (Hyacinthoides spp., formerly Endymion and Scilla): spring bulb widespread in Eurasia.
Garden Tips for Hyacinths:
- Plant hyacinth bulbs where it will be easy to enjoy their fragrance: near a doorway, along a garden path, or at the front edge of a flower border.
- Hyacinth bulbs can cause mild skin irritation. Wear gloves when planting them or wash your hands after handling them.
- Hyacinth bulbs contain oxalic acid, which makes them toxic to humans and unappealing to chipmunks and voles as well as deer.
- Hyacinths are long-lasting cut flowers that will perfume an entire room. Plant some bulbs in your vegetable garden so you can cut and share the blooms.
- Hyacinths flower in early to mid-spring at the same time as emperor and double early tulips, mid-season daffodils, chionodoxa, scilla and muscari.
- Encourage hyacinths to bloom for more than one year by cutting off the flower spikes as soon as the flowers fade.