The familiar hyacinth comes from a huge plant family — Hyacinthaceae — which includes bluebells (Hyacinthoides), grape hyacinths (Mus-cari) and star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum), as well as Chionodoxa and Scilla. But the hyacinth genus itself (Hyacinthus) is actually quite small.
It has nevertheless generated so many dramatic and popular cultivars that it has become one of the most well-known of any bulb genus.
Upright spikes of outward-facing bell-shaped flowers with reflexed petals appear in mid-spring. They come in a variety of colours, and hyacinths are most famous for their powerful perfumes.
Most of the hybrids we see today originate from Hyacinthus orientalis, which originally came from Turkey and Syria.
Several varieties are mentioned in Dutch catalogues dating from the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th century one
Dutch nurseryman, based in Haarlem, was growing 150 different double blues and purples and half that number of singles, together with reds and whites. The first yellow was offered later that century.
Even today, the Dutch are still the forerunners in the breeding and supply of hyacinths.
Many hyacinth bulbs are “prepared” — specially treated so that they will flower very early in winter, with the Christmas market as the main target. These bulbs are lifted in the green and then heated as dry bulbs to predetermined temperatures, which gradually diminish week by week, until the bulbs are ready for planting in early autumn.
The best way to display these treated bulbs is in indoor bowls or single-bulb glass water containers. Stock that is not warmed in this way flowers naturally later in the spring, and is destined for bedding and outdoor container sales.
Most hyacinths produce single stems, but there is also the multiflora group which produces several slender stems to a plant, with individual blooms more loosely spaced. These are typically planted three or more to a pot. The double forms are rare, but make excellent displays.
Outdoors, hyacinths need a sunny position. They should be planted during September or October, 12-15cm deep. To keep them in good condition, home gardeners should lift the bulbs from the ground after the leaves have turned yellow.
The bulbs should be kept throughout summer in a dry place, for replanting in the autumn.
Nematodes, moulds and bacteria can attack hyacinths. Flowers may fall prematurely as a result of a drop in temperature or humidity. If plants are forced too early, green flower petals may appear.
What the specialists say
Tim Woodland, UK sales director, Simple Pleasures, Hampshire “Sales of hyacinths are very stable at present — the Dutch producers adequately meet the demand. It doesn’t leave much space for anyone else to get in on the act and I can’t foresee huge growth potential.
“In recent years the prepared hyacinth market has been hit. Customers tend to be put off by them because they have to plan a planting and growing schedule: plant at the right time; subject them to cool; put them in the dark; bring them out at a certain time; give them light; proper tempera-tures… it’s a daunting procedure. Also, a certain number of ‘cold units’ are required before prepared bulbs develop their growth buds, and as we mostly always have central heating in our homes these days it is difficult to find suitable cool-room conditions.
“Bedding varieties, in the long run, are seen as more popular. Retailers are used to offering three- or five-bulb packs, and this makes good marketing sense. The yellow varieties are rather wishy-washy in their colours, but if breeders could get a clear yellow, such as that of ‘King Alfred’ daffodils, they would be on to a real winner. The orange forms, too, need refining to achieve a stronger and more powerful colouring. When this happens, as I’m sure it will, we will probably see sales for these creep up to the levels enjoyed by the blues and pinks. ‘Delft Blue’ and ‘Pink Pear’ (sold as ‘Pink Frosting’) are our top-sellers.”
John Amand, owner, Jacques Amand International, Middlesex “The market for hyacinths is steady to good. There are many new varieties to be launched over the next couple of years. In the UK we get 99 per cent of our bulbs — both dry and potted — from Holland. The rest come from France.
“Blue varieties outsell the pinks, whites and yellows, probably because there are few other blue-flowering plants in the garden at this time of year. However, where the double-flowered hyacinths are concerned, it is the pink variety ‘Hollyhock’ and the white ‘Madame Sophie’ that outsell the blues by miles.”
Pam Shiner, manager, Golden Acres Garden Centre, Dorset “We find that few customers realise there is a difference between prepared hyacinths and those for bedding, which is why at bulb-selling time we really go to town on point-of-sale material.
“In late winter and early spring we sell many planted containers. Some comprise three hyacinths to a pot, and some have hyacinths mixed in with miniature daffodils, primroses and ivy. These are all planted up at our Landford nursery, so we have control of our colouring system. Blues outsell the other colours because, I believe, they have a stronger perfume.”
Species and cultivars
Cultivars of Hyacinthus orientalis (single)
• ‘Aiolos’ — pure white; good for forcing.
• ‘Amethyst’ — lilac-mauve; late flowering.
• ‘Amsterdam’ — salmon-red; early flowering.
• ‘Anna Liza’ — lavender-lilac; early flowering (sometimes found as ‘Anna Lisa’).
• ‘Anna Marie’ Award of Garden Merit (AGM) — pale pink, changing to salmon and buff-pink; also known as ‘Christmas Joy’; early flowering.
• ‘Atlantic’ — violet blue, good for forcing.
• ‘Bismarck’ — light blue.
• ‘Blue Giant’ — pale blue.
• ‘Blue Jacket’ AGM — large, dark blue, purple-striped flowers; good for forcing.
• ‘Blue Magic’ — purple-blue; mid-season flowering.
• ‘Blue Pearl’ — a modern, semi-double; blue with a darker vein.
• ‘Blue Star’ — deep blue; very strong grower.
• ‘Carnegie’ — dense white on a strong, compact spike, old favourite, late flowering.
• ‘China Pink’ — pink, mid-season to late flowering.
• ‘City of Haarlem’ AGM — old cultivar with primrose-yellow flowers; long spike; available as forced bulbs and for spring bedding.
• ‘Delft Blue’ AGM — lilac-blue blooms; available as forced bulbs and for spring bedding.
• ‘Fondant’ — apple-blossom pink; good forcing variety.
• ‘Gipsy Princess’ — pale yellow.
• ‘Gipsy Queen’ AGM — flowers of dark salmon and apricot shades, late flowering; one of the best for bedding.
• ‘Jan Bos’ — rich red; available as forced bulbs and for spring bedding.
• ‘King of the Blues’ — indigo blue; compact spike; late flowering.
• ‘Kronos’ — deep blue; large compact spike.
• ‘Lady Derby’ — pale pink; large bells; mid-season flowering.
• ‘L’Innocence’ AGM — ivory white; single; mid-season flowering; old cultivar.
• ‘Marconi’ — deep rose-pink; late-flowering.
• ‘Midnight Mystique’ — dark-purple.
• ‘Ostara’ AGM — pansy-violet and pale purple-blue; single; early flowering.
• ‘Peter Stuyvesant’ — royal-blue flowers on a bronze-coloured stem.
• ‘Paul Hermann’ — amethyst-violet with a deeper purple vein.
• ‘Pink Pearl’ AGM — fuchsia-purple with a pale edge; available as forced bulbs and for spring bedding.
• ‘Purple Passion’ — purple-violet.
• ‘Purple Sensation’ — purple; early flowering.
• ‘Red Magic’ — deep rose-red, lightly marked with a cream centre and a fine edge to the petals.
• ‘Sky Jacket’ — pale-blue; medium to to late flowering.
• ‘Splendid Cornelia’ — lilac-mauve flowers that turn to silver-lilac with age; good for forcing.
• ‘White Pearl’ — pure white; good for forcing; very early flowering.
• ‘Woodstock’ — deep purple-red; late flowering.
Cultivars of Hyacinthus orientalis (double)
• ‘Chestnut Flower’ — pale pink.
• ‘Crystal Palace’ — deep blue.
• ‘General Köhler’ — blue with a central stripe of deeper blue.
• ‘Hollyhock’ — deep crimson-red on a dark brown stem; highly scented.
• ‘Madame Sophie’ — ivory white; very large flowers; pleasantly scented.
• ‘Rosette’ — rose-pink.
• Multiflora Blue — porcelain-blue.
• Multiflora Light Blue — pale to mid-blue.
• Multiflora Pink — deep pink.
• Multiflora Red — rose-pink to red.
• Multiflora White — masses of pure white flowers; good for massed plantings or pots and tubs.