Sweetly fragrant hyacinths are timeless beauties

Hyacinths Image by Dalmava from PixabayHyacinths Image by Dalmava from PixabayHyacinths fill gardens with their heady fragrance in late winter or early spring when the rest of the garden is only starting to wake up. And although these little bulbs don’t grow very tall, what they lack in stature they sure make up for in prominence, having graced the gardens and homes of nobility since Mohammed II, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Emperor Ferdinand I. Read all about them below.

Hyacinths can be traced back to antiquity and were found growing on the forest floors of ancient woodlands where they spent most of the year as dormant underground bulbs, only emerging for a brief period in very early spring to produce leaves and their lovely fragrant blooms, before going dormant once again. Early flowering ensures that these tiny plants receive the maximum amount of sunlight required for them to complete their life cycle before the vigorous summer growth of other plants overshadows the forest floor once again. Early flowering also attracts the attention of plenty of pollinating insects.

The parent of the present day garden or “Dutch” hyacinth was a wild flower which had a wide distribution in a number of areas of the eastern Mediterranean, through Asia Minor and Syria into Iran and Iraq. The formidable Mohammed II who conquered Constantinople in 1453, and Suleiman the Magnificent who reigned as Sultan during the hey-day of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566, were both devoted to gardens, where hyacinths, tulips, and many other bulbs were extensively cultivated.

There is convincing evidence that the hyacinth was cultivated by the Turks not only for its beauty and fragrance, but also for ceremonial usage, and upon the death of the Ottoman Sultan Moerad III in 1595, who was commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror, his mourning son had no fewer than half a million hyacinths planted.

Under the rule of Suleiman, the Ottoman fleet dominated the seas from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and through the Persian Gulf, and it was from these regions that many of the most ornamental bulbs were introduced to Western Europe, and these almost certainly would have included the beautiful and highly scented hyacinth.

Emperor Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1558 to 1564, sent an ambassador, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, to Suleiman the Magnificent in 1554, four years before Ferdinand became Emperor, and when he was still King of Bohemia and Hungary. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq was credited with dispatching the first Tulips into Western Europe, and their popularity became so great that between 1634 and 1637 the enthusiasm for the new flowers triggered a speculative frenzy, starting in Holland and sweeping through most of Europe. Today this is known as the 'tulip mania’, depicting a time when tulips become so expensive they were treated as a form of currency, and a single bulb of a sought after variety of tulip would sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars! Perhaps the Dutch were so preoccupied with tulips that few breeders took an interest in hyacinths. There was also no mention of the hyacinth in England until 1596 when the noted English herbalist, John Gerard, recorded growing them in his garden.

The name “hyacinth” can be traced back to ancient Indo-European languages which were spoken some 4,000 years ago, called “Thracian” languages, and the name is believed to be connected with the blue colour of water, and also indicates that it was in reference to the species, Hyacinthus orientalis, with its fragrant blue flowers.

Hyacinths were mentioned by Homer, the great epic poet of Greece, in the Iliad, which was first published around 762 BC, as being among the flowers which formed the couch of Hera, the queen of heaven and earth. It was also botanically listed by the Greek philosopher and naturalist, Theophrastus (372-287 BC), and was known to the Greek physician, Dioscorides, in the first century AD.

Fashion helped promote hyacinths too, and Madame de Pompadour, a member of the French court and the official chief mistress of King Louis XV from 1745 to 1751, was a keen devotee of these fragrant blooms, ensuring that Louis XV planted hyacinths extensively in his various palace gardens. It is also recorded that in 1759 Madame had no less than 200 hyacinths grown “on glasses” during the winter as well.

Hyacinths Mixed Colours Image by Petra Göschel from PixabayHyacinths Mixed Colours Image by Petra Göschel from PixabayBulb flowers were used in great quantities, not only for decorating the great halls of palaces, but also in the attire of ladies who wished to embellish their plunging necklines with the gorgeous and costly blooms of the latest novelties in hyacinths and tulips. Hyacinths were also a favourite of Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, and it is reported that she had hundreds of hyacinths delivered to the palace daily to be placed in vases, and for use in her perfumes.

Since the sixteenth century to the present day other Hyacinth orientalis varieties or forms have been described, including Hyacinth orientalis albulus, commonly called the “Roman hyacinth.” This hyacinth is an early flowering strain native to the South of France which bears scented white flowers on a small slender spike. Roman hyacinths were cultivated for a long time, and breeding ensured that blue and pink forms of Hyacinth orientalis albulus also became available, and these new colours, together with the white form became popular indoor plants in Europe for early Christmas blooms.

Today Roman hyacinths are very difficult to find, as they have been superseded by the showier multiflora or “Fairy” types of hyacinth. These were initially developed in the 1930’s by George van Veld from Lisse, a town in the Netherlands, by crossing Roman hyacinths with other single garden types to obtain earlier flowering varieties with larger flowers, and in a wider colour range.

The breeding history of the cultivated hyacinth goes back more than 400 years, with all cultivars stemming from a single species Hyacinthus orientalis. Double flowered cultivars enjoyed periods of popularity, but in recent times breeding has tended to concentrate on single varieties. This selection process gave rise to the superb range of florists’ hyacinths we have today, and garden varieties have increased enormously in stature, becoming waxy, fat, and stout, and fortunately they have retained the sweet scent of the wild species.  

For around 2 to 3 weeks in spring, Dutch hyacinths produce sturdy flowering stems about 15 to 25cm tall. Each bulb generally produces only one flower stalk, and the pretty, bell-shaped flowers are densely clustered around the stem, and are held above the lance-shaped, bright green leaves.

In South Africa Hyacinths with single flowers are available mainly in the traditional colours of purple, blue, pink and white, as the yellow and red colours can’t handle our warm springs very well. However, in colder regions in America and Europe they now come in single and double flowers, and in all the traditional shades, as well as lilac, salmon, cobalt blue, cream, yellow, apricot, and even a blood red hue.

Grape hyacinths (Muscari) are not directly related to true hyacinths, but bloom at the same time as true Hyacinths and have the same care requirements. These even smaller growing bulbs are tiny wonders, with their small clusters of bell-shaped, cobalt-blue flowers. Members can click here to read more about grape hyacinths.

Potted Hyacinths Image by patrizzia from PixabayPotted Hyacinths Image by patrizzia from PixabayIn the Garden & Home:

In South Africa hyacinths are planted out in late autumn to early winter (March, April or May) for a colourful display anytime from July to September. Hyacinths are a beautiful addition to any garden and home, whether they are adorning spring flower beds or blooming in pots indoors - they look gorgeous inside and out.

Their strong, sweet scent will fill the garden or home with a heady aroma and they should be planted where there fragrance can be appreciated. Try planting hyacinths in small pots, which can be brought indoors when they are in bloom, or grow them in glass vases with water.

Hyacinths work well at the front of spring borders, along with other spring bulbs like grape hyacinths (muscari), tulips and daffodils. Plant splendid displays of colour by grouping the same colours together for the greatest impact.

Good companions include winter and spring flowering annuals which also like shade.

All types of primula are fantastic companions, and the Common Primrose (Primula vulgaris) is perfect to plant in front of hyacinths as they only grow 12cm tall, and like hyacinths they are one of the first flowers to peek out in spring, and are covered in a profusion of intensely coloured flowers in every colour except green. Members can click here to read more about growing the Common Primrose.

German Primroses (Primula obconica)  will grow about 20cm tall and look good behind hyacinths as they flower profusely in winter and spring, producing  clusters of cheerful flowers in a rainbow of colours from yellows and oranges to reds, pink and lilac, blue, purple and white. Members can click here to read more about growing German Primroses.

Fairy Primroses (Primula malacoides) vary slightly in height, but generally they mature at approximately 30cm in height, making them perfect to grow behind hyacinths. The flowers come in delightful shades of lilac, purple, pink, carmine-red and white, and gardeners love to use them in pots, or in flower and bulb borders. Members can click here to read more about growing Fairy Primroses

Virginian Stocks (Malcolmia maritima) deserve a place in every winter and spring garden. Not only do they flower profusely in delightful shades of pink, rose red, lilac and creamy-white, but they also smell heavenly. It must be the easiest annual to grow from seed sown directly into garden beds, and quickly produces small bushes 20 to 30cm tall. Virginian stocks go perfectly with all spring-time bloomers, especially bulbs. Members can click here to read more about growing Virginian Stocks.

Lobelias can be grown almost throughout the year in South Africa and produce a profusion of tiny flowers in shades of blue, lilac, purple, pink, carmine and white. They vary slightly in height but the modern varieties are very compact and will grow about 15cm tall, making them perfect to intersperse between clumps of hyacinths. The cascading varieties produce billowing masses of flowers up to 30cm long and are favourites to mix with other plants and bulbs in hanging baskets and containers. Members can click here to read more about growing Lobelias.

English Daisies (Bellis perennis) are neat, compact plants, growing about 15 to 20cm tall, and  throughout winter and spring they produce masses of tightly quilled, single, or double flowers, in shades of pink, white and rosy red. They make superb edging plants for pathways and flower borders, and are great to use with spring flowering bulbs. Members can click here to read more about growing Bellis perennis.

Pansies and violas love full winter sun but if you can plant them somewhere near to hyacinths they make beguiling companions. Members can click here to read more about growing pansies and violas.

Hyacinths and Daffodils Image by Manfred Richter from PixabayHyacinths and Daffodils Image by Manfred Richter from PixabayCultivation:

These fragrant flowers are uncomplicated and relatively simple to grow if you place them correctly. They are very hardy, tolerating snow and temperatures as low as -15°C.  Because they prefer cold temperatures, in South Africa hyacinth bulbs are planted from the end of April and May, once the soil temperatures have cooled down significantly. Because they do not like hot soil, do not plant them in a hot courtyard or next to a hot pathway or wall. Rather select a cool spot with morning sun and afternoon shade, or semi-shade throughout the day.

Bulbs planted in garden beds should be grown in a fertile and well-draining soil, mixed with some well-matured compost, and if your drainage is not perfect put a good layer of washed river sand at the bottom of each planting hole.

In order to prevent the bulbs from drying out too quickly in garden beds, cover the tops of the bulbs with about 5cm of soil, and space the bulbs about 5 to 6cm apart. Adding a layer of mulch over the soil after planting will keep the soil at a more constant temperature.

Growing Hyacinths in Pots:

Potted hyacinths can be moved indoors once they are in bloom, and their rich colour and lovely fragrance will brighten up any room. When grown indoors, place the plants in a spot that receives bright light but little or no direct sunlight.

Bulbs grown in containers should be kept in a shaded spot outdoors, as cold weather encourages root growth. For this reason, if you are growing them indoors, try to place the pots outside at night, or in the coldest room, away from heaters etc. 

Image by Karsten Paulick from PixabayImage by Karsten Paulick from PixabayHyacinths grow beautifully in small pots as long as they are watered regularly and a good, well-drained potting soil is used. Adding a generous amount of washed river sand to the potting soil will ensure good drainage.

In pot culture the tops of the bulbs are planted with their necks exposed, and the bulbs are also planted closer, just touching each other. Single colours planted together will give the best effect. As for those cultivated in garden beds, a layer of mulch on top of the soil is beneficial.

For the best results, the soil of potted hyacinths should be kept consistently moist at root level, but not soggy, so water regularly and generously every three to four days. Do not allow the pots to stand in drip trays filled with water as hyacinths don't like 'wet feet'. If you are unsure about watering potted plants in general it would be a good investment to purchase a water meter. Feed every two weeks with a balanced liquid fertiliser for flowering plants, or with a speciality food like Hadeco Bulb Food.

Growing Hyacinths in Water:

Growing hyacinths hydroponically is so much fun, and children and adults alike will be fascinated to watch the roots growing down into the water, and when hyacinths flower indoors their flowers are sure to bring sighs of delight as their sweet perfume fills the entire room.

It is easy to grow hyacinths in glass jars or vases with only water, but ensure that you buy fresh, heat-treated bulbs each season. Simply fill each hyacinth glass with water to just below where the bulb’s base will be and add dollar store glass pebbles. The pebbles will help to anchor the roots as they grow, and they also look really pretty in glass containers. Place the bulb on top of the glass and double check that the bottom is not touching the water, or the bulb will rot. The roots will be encouraged by the cold to grow through the pebbles in the bowl and into the water on their own.

Start this process in a cold and deeply shaded place, and once the roots are about 5cm long move the plant into an area that has brighter light but which is still cool. Once the main green shoot is about 7 to 10cm tall, move the glass into full bright light indoors, but no direct sun. If they do not receive enough light indoors, the stems will stretch. As the leaves and stems gradually develop, turn the glass around by a half-turn every day, to prevent the plant growing towards the light and toppling over. Top up the water as necessary.

Hyacinths will flower for a longer period if you can leave them outside in the cold air, so take your plant outside before you retire at night and during the day if you are not at home. If you don’t have a garden or balcony, keep them in the coldest room when you retire at night, and never place them close to heaters etc.

Propagation:

Sadly, Hyacinth bulbs do not really store well in our hot climate and because they require expert care and special temperature treatments to make them re-flower successfully, they are generally discarded after flowering.

In our hot South African climate, seed production is unlikely to occur, and in colder climates with longer and colder winters bulbs grown from seed can take up to six years to reach maturity.

If you wish to try to save the bulbs for next year, keep them growing strongly with regular watering and feeding until the plant dies down naturally, then lift the bulbs and allow them to dry in the shade before brushing of the excess soil and lightly dusting them with a fungicide powder and layering them in a cardboard box or paper bag between sawdust, river sand, or vermiculite. 

In South Africa, if  treated hyacinth bulbs are purchased and grown correctly, the plants are not prone to diseases, pest infestations, or other serious problems. They finish their life-cycle before most pests wake up in spring, but watch out for aphids if we have a warm, early spring. Because they are treated as winter and spring flowering ‘annuals’ and the bulbs are discarded and bought fresh each season, hyacinths are trouble free little bulbs.

The biggest threat is grey mould, which is more likely to occur in humid regions. To protect against mould, spray regularly with a fungicide solution.

Root rot can also be a major problem with potted hyacinths, and most often results in the death of the plant. It is caused by overwatering which turns the root system to mush. Yellowing and browning are also signs of this problem.

If hyacinth leaves start to turn yellow it can be a sign of either overwatering, or at the other extreme, under-watering. Yellowing leaves can also be the result of poorly draining soil, incorrect nutrient levels, or even fertiliser burn.

Weak stems and sparse flowers can happen when bulbs are old. Hyacinths are their best the first season after they are planted.  

Insects like aphids or red spiders can be treated by spraying with a good general purpose insecticide like neem oil.

Warning:

Make sure you always wear gloves when planting hyacinth bulbs, as they can irritate the skin of sensitive people, causing itching. Always discourage pets from chewing on plants and small children should always be supervised around plants.