After a grey winter, we all look forward to the first flowering bulbs with their bright colors and lovely forms. Scented blooms add an extra dimension that we can enjoy and use to maximize the uplifting nature of flowers.Growing hyacinth bulbs is easy, but the common name 'Hyacinth' can be a little confusing. There are two types of what we commonly know of as hyacinth. Additionally, there are spring flowers such as Muscari and Scilla, that have the common name of hyacinth but are not really Hyacinth.
Probably the best-known hyacinth is the Hyacinthus orientalis, commonly known as hyacinth or Dutch hyacinth. These are the stately aristocrats of pomp and spring fragrance with upright stems packed with flowers. Native to the eastern Mediterranean, the well-bred Hyacinthus orientalis grows best in full sun to part shade with well-drained soil.
Growing hyacinth was so popular in the Netherlands in the 1800s that over 2000 cultivars were grown! Today we enjoy them in a range of colors from blue, white and pink, to violet and orange--if you can imagine a color you can probably find a hyacinth to match.
Growing Hyacinth Bulbs: Planting Tips
Hardy in zones 4-8 and growing 10-12 inches tall, they are deer-resistant stars of the spring garden. Hyacinth makes great cut flowers too. Remove flowers when finished, let foliage die back naturally to feed the bulbs for next year’s blooms.
Try grouping hyacinth around the entrance to your doorway or a garden. By planting them in groups you will intensify the aroma and the color. While hyacinth looks beautiful in groupings – they can also be used as a border in a more formal setting. Try planting them with smaller lilacs or Viburnum for an exquisite fragrance treat.
An important early source of easy-to-reach pollen for pollinators, hyacinth blooms in mid-spring along with many tulips and daffodils. Plant bulbs in the fall, 6-8 weeks before frost, 6 inches deep in compost-enriched, well-drained soil.
Wear gloves when planting! Hyacinth bulbs contain oxalic acid making them very distasteful to bulb munchers, but they can be irritating to our skin. Space them at about 6 bulbs per square foot or every 2-3 inches. Water well and water as needed during active growth, but don’t let the bulbs become water-logged as they will rot.
Interestingly, as hyacinths return in following years, their form may loosen, harkening back to their wildflower nature. (Some gardeners replace them every 1-2 years to keep the structured form, others prefer it).
Different Hyacinth Varieties
There are also varieties that reflect the more original form. Hyacinthoides non-scripta (English Bluebells) and Hyacinthoides hispanica (Spanish Bluebells or Wood Hyacinth) are heirloom varieties, native to their named lands.
Spanish Bluebells have blue, pink or white flowers on a sturdy stem about 18 inches tall. The English bluebell has dark blue, pendant like flowers on an arching 8-12 inch stem. The Spanish bluebell was introduced to England many years ago and it hybridized with the native bluebell. English bluebells are now regarded as a threatened species in the UK. North America has no native bluebells so choose freely and plant where they can naturalize. Woodland bulbs, they can grow through leaf mulch and bloom before the tree canopy above closes. In partial shade and woodsy soil, they are low-care flowers that naturalize readily. That being said, these heirloom varieties will also thrive in full sun locations.
Growing Hyacinth Indoors
In the midst of winter’s pale, there is nothing like the sweet fragrance and bright color of hyacinth. Here are 3 easy steps to bring them into winter bloom.
They are easy to force, but do need a pre-chill. If you are able to find pre-chilled bulbs you can skip this step, otherwise place your hyacinth bulbs in a cool (35-45 degrees) place for 12-16 weeks. A garage or basement is often ideal for this. A refrigerator will work too, but make sure not to keep apples at the same time.
According to Greek myth, Hyacinth (Hyakinthos) was a beautiful prince, beloved by the God Apollo. One day when they were throwing the discus. Hyakinthos ran to catch it to impress Apollo and was struck in the neck and died. When he died, Apollo did not allow Hades to claim the youth, rather, he made a flower, the hyacinth, from his spilled blood. Today we think of hyacinths as harbingers of spring and renewal, one of spring’s most beautiful gifts.
About six weeks before you want blooms plant them in a pot with soil, or force them in water. “Forcing jars” are a Victorian tradition for a single bulb, and you can also use a straight sided jar with gravel in the bottom that will hold multiple bulbs. The bulbs must not sit in water, so don’t over water if in soil. If in water, bring the water level to just below the bottom of the bulbs and change the water once per week. Continue to keep them in their cool hideaway until roots develop and green growth is a few inches high (about 3-4 weeks).
Then bring it into a cool, sunny location. After about two weeks, you’ll have beautiful fragrant blossoms to chase away winter’s blues.
For instance, if you’d like blooms for Valentine’s Day, when you receive your bulbs (or mid-Sept./Oct.) begin to chill them. If it’s warm in your area, start the pre-chill in your refrigerator, then move them to a basement or garage as temperatures drop. Just after New Year’s, follow step #2 and you are on your way to February blooms!
We’d love to hear how you use hyacinth – in your home and garden. Send photos, share stories, ask questions. We are here to help you expand your enjoyment of flower bulbs.