This easily recognisable genus can be striking both indoors and out, Miranda Kimberley writes.

Hyacinthus 'Mix' - image: Floramedia
Hyacinthus 'Mix' - image: Floramedia
Hyacinths, with their heady fragrance and dense flower spike, are a bulb easily recognised by even the most amateur gardener. Unlike

many other bulbs that only suit being planted out in beds and borders, the hyacinth is highly versatile. As well as being used as an outdoor bedding plant, they can be manipulated to flower at Christmas for a lovely indoor display and can even be put in a vase of water so the roots can be seen growing.

The common hyacinth, Hyacinthus orientalis, came from western and central Asia. It was introduced to Europe in the 16th century and by the 18th century more than 2,000 cultivars were being produced commercially in the Netherlands. Therefore this species and its cultivars have come to be known as Dutch hyacinth.

There are two other species classified in the genus, H. litwinowii and H. transcaspicus, which are both small species that suit being grown in a rock garden. There are also many closely related bulbs, including squills and Brodiaea, that share the common name hyacinth, but they are not part of the genus. The only other hyacinth of commercial importance is its looser-flowered form, H. orientalis var. albulus, which is less hardy and has white or blue petals. These are often used by florists and they are commonly referred to as Roman hyacinth.

The Dutch hyacinth produces a dense spike of flowers that are bell-shaped but have reflexed petals, so they appear like a mass of stars. They come in a huge range of vibrant colours, including white, peach, orange, salmon, yellow, pink, red, purple, lavender and blue. The leaves are wide straps of glossy green that fold over themselves.

They can be single or double-flowered and there are multiflora types that produce several slender stems from each bulb. Hyacinths are also sold in different bulb sizes from around 14-18cm. The smaller bulbs tend to produce good bedding plants because the flower head does not need staking. The larger bulbs tend to be used for forcing and growing inside. For this purpose, bulbs are sold "prepared", meaning they have been given a series of cold treatments to induce early flowering.

To force the prepared bulbs, plant groups of them in shallow bowls containing bulb fibre, so their tops are just above the surface of the compost. Then they need a cool, dark period, which will encourage root growth. This can be done by putting the pots into a black polythene bag and standing them in a dark corner of a shed or placing them in a cold frame outside and covering them with a deep layer of compost. Check them regularly and water if there are signs that the growing medium is drying out, but be careful not to overwater because they will rot.

When the growing shoots are about 5cm tall, take the pots out and place them in a cool room away from direct sunlight until the leaves turn green. Then move them closer to the window, but if possible keep them away from radiators.

Hyacinths can also be grown in specialist bulb vases. Simply fill the vase with water up to its neck and then sit the bulb on top, making sure the base of the bulb is just above the water. Then treat it in the same way as the potted bulbs, though it is best to discard it after flowering.

Garden hyacinths simply need to be planted between September and November, about 20cm deep in a sunny position.

What the specialists say

John Amand, owner, Jacques Amand, Middlesex

"Hyacinths are fabulous, but sadly sales are not what they used to be. I think people find them a bit too time consuming because of the forcing element. It’s a shame. There are so many grown commercially that they are in flower in the shops from November through to March, which may also explain lessening interest.

"There are some exciting new varieties becoming available, especially in shades of blue and near-black. There’s the lovely deep-blue ‘Springfield’ and ‘Pacific Ocean’, which is the darkest blue, almost black. I haven’t tried forcing either of these as they may lose their colour.

"Prepared hyacinths can provide a great display at Christmas by being forced, starting in the first week of September. I recommend planting them individually into pots, placing them in a cold frame open to the elements and covering them with compost. Then move them into heat when they have started to shoot. When they are ready, select the plants that are at the same stage and pot them up together in bowls.
"The smaller bulbs are used for bedding because they don’t fall over as easily. But if you are planting the larger bulb sizes, you can use a hyacinth stake, which is basically a piece of wire. Push the wire through the stem and the bulb. You don’t need to worry too much about the damage as it is generally best to discard the plants after they have flowered. They are still lovely when they reflower but definitely lack the same impact. They are more like a glorified bluebell."

Karen Lynes, manager, Peter Nyssen, Manchester

"There have been many advances in the breeding of hyacinths and new colours are starting to appear, but they are expensive.

"White is always very popular, along with blue and pink. I love the classic combination of blue and white planted together, especially with dark tulips like ‘Ronaldo’. I don’t like the big hyacinths, with bulb size around 17-18cm. Though the flowers are beautiful, they are so large they fall over and the look you want is not achieved. I find 16-17cm bulbs much better, unless you individually stake each flower with a hyacinth pin.

"Plant-prepare hyacinths with the tips of the bulbs just showing through the compost. Use a loam-based potting compost, John Innes No 2 or bulb fibre, but don’t use peat-based compost. The pots will need drainage holes. They need to be kept in a cool, dark place with a temperature of no more than 45°F for around eight to 12 weeks to let the roots develop.

"When the shoots are around 2.5-5cm high, gradually increase the light and temperature. If they are brought out into the light and warmth too soon, they can produce elongated leaves and weak flowers. It is important not to get any water on the shoots as this can cause the flower to rot. Avoid waterlogging the compost. Damp conditions and poor drainage can cause rot and fungal diseases. When flowering is finished, they can be planted out in the garden.

"Bedding hyacinths can be planted outside, around 20cm deep, from September to November. They like moderately fertile soil and full sun. In containers, it is best to use a good-quality potting medium such as John Innes No 2 with a little sand or grit added to help drainage."

In practice

David Anderson, general manager, Seven Hills Garden Centre, Garden Centre Group

"Hyacinth must be among one of several widely recognised and popular bulbs for the winter and spring seasons. Their intoxicating fragrance, unique blooms and colours have been enjoyed for generations. We try to have several entry levels for this versatile bulb.

"One is the unprepared bulb that is simply sold in packets ready to be planted straight into the garden. But the most popular by far is the prepared hyacinth. We strongly promote these as ideal for bowl or pot planting. These look best in neutral terracotta bowls with odd-numbered bulbs nestling on top enhanced by a bark or moss mulch. We display these planted up next to our loose bulbs.

"The other fun thing to do is to have a good display of hyacinth glass jars with a good number already with the hyacinth growing in them for that visual wow factor. Simply fill the jars with water and nestle the hyacinth on the top so it just touches the water. Place it somewhere bright and warm — a window sill is ideal. Then watch those white roots twist and twine in the jar. Once the roots have started to grow, place them in your display. Customers will be mesmerised.

"We also have a second helping of sales around Christmas with prepared hyacinths. We plant up bowls in the same way but use a more festive container. Even a single bulb in a bright red tin can have a fantastic Christmas feel to it.

"We hang signage highlighting the strong and enticing fragrance and striking colours they produce."

Species and varieties

H. ‘Aiolus’ has strong, ivory-white flowers. One of the best whites for outdoor bedding. Flowers March-April. Height: 25cm.

H. ‘Anna Marie’ Award of Garden Merit (AGM) (H4) has attractively scented flowers of pink that fade to salmon pink. One of the best for early forcing and planting in a bowl for a display indoors. Flowers December-February. Height: 25cm.

H. ‘Blue Jacket’ AGM (H4) has deep-blue blooms with a rich purple stripe running through each petal. Ideal for bedding outdoors. Flowers March-April. Height: 20cm.

H. ‘Carnegie’ produces pure white, strong, compact spikes that come late in the season. Height: 25cm.

H. ‘Crystal Palace’ produces fragrant and spectacular deep-blue double flowers that can be used in pots or in the garden. Flowers March-April. Height: 25cm.

H. ‘City of Haarlem’ AGM (H4) is a highly popular, fragrant, yellow type that can be forced and planted in pots or used as bedding. Height: 25cm.

H. ‘Delft Blue’ AGM (H4) produces a fragrant flower head with soft lilac-blue petals. Good for bedding. Flowers March-April. Height: 25cm.

H. ‘Gipsy Queen’ AGM (H4) produces fragrant, salmon-orange flower spikes. Ideal for bedding. Flowers March-April. Height: 25cm.

H. ‘Hollyhock’ AGM (H4) is a fragrant variety with striking double, crimson-red flowers. Flowers April. Height: 20cm.

H. ‘Jan Bos’ AGM (H4) has fragrant, carmine-red flowers. Ideal for bedding. Flowers March-April. Height: 25cm.

H. ‘L’Innocence’ AGM (H4) is a classic, highly scented white hyacinth. Flowers March-April. Height: 20-30cm.

H. ‘Miss Saigon’ AGM (H4) is a deep mauvish-purple. Height: 25cm.

H. ‘Peter Stuyvesant’ is a recent introduction that produces dark violet-blue flowers on a bronzy stem. Good for bedding. Flowers March-April. Height: 25cm.

H. ‘Pink Pearl’ AGM (H4) is a fragrant, deep rose-pink variety
that is good for bedding. Flowers March-April.

H. ‘Purple Sensation’ is a fragrant, rich rose-purple variety with fine petals. Good for bedding. Flowers March-April. Subject to PBR. Height: 20-30cm.

H. ‘White Festival’ AGM (H4) is a multiflora type that produces more than one spike per bulb. This variety has fragrant white flowers. Flowers time March-April. Height: 30cm.

H. ‘White Pearl’ is a nice variety with spikes of scented milk-white flowers. Can be forced for an early indoor display or grown as bedding to flower March-April. There is also a ‘Pink Pearl’ AGM (H4) and ‘Blue Pearl’, which is subject to PBR. Height: 25cm.
H. ‘Woodstock’ is a fragrant wine-purple variety that can be grown in pots or as bedding. Height: 20cm.

Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library

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