The grape hyacinths are diminutive little bulbs, perhaps overshadowed by their larger, showier cousins such as the tulips and daffodils. But they provide a delicate, usually blue pop of colour that suits woodlands, the front of borders and pots, especially when they are grown as part of a cocktail — or "lasagne", as the Dutch say — with other spring-flowering bulbs.
There are 30 species of these bulbous perennials and all are spring-flowering. They produce conical flower spikes made up of many small blooms that are coloured shades of blue, yellow and white.
They often have a contrasting colour lining the mouth of each flower — if blue, often white, which is a nice feature.
The best-known species, and the one that gives the group a bad name because of its vigorous and therefore invasive nature, is Muscari armeniacum Award of Garden Merit (AGM). If you are happy for it to spread — it will seed everywhere — then you will find it useful to fill difficult areas such as dry spots under trees or in wall crevices.
The straight species has lovely deep-blue flowers with white mouths. There are several excellent unusually coloured cultivars such as ‘Peppermint’, ‘Valerie Finnis’ and ‘Gül’. Sterile non-invasive variety ‘Saffier’ has subtle blue constricted flowers with a green wash.
Other vigorous species include M. aucheri AGM, M. botryoides, M. comosum, M. latifolium AGM and M. neglectum, although they are perhaps not quite so invasive as M. armeniacum AGM. Use their nature to your benefit — they will form large masses of colour in woodlands and along paths or border edges.
A variety that really stands out is M. comosum ‘Plumosum’. It has a feathery head of purple flowers, giving it a unique look among grape hyacinths. Other choice species include the Asian M. macrocarpum and M. muscarimi. Both have a strong, musky fragrance. M. latifolium AGM is another highly valued species, for its two-tone flower spike and broad leaves.
Muscari are easy to establish. Plant them 10cm deep in full sun or partial shade in the autumn, in naturalistic groups. Once away, they do well treated to a top dressing of bonemeal each spring.
Should clumps become overcrowded, they can be lifted and divided. Give the Asian species a position in full sun and well-drained soil. They are best grown in clay pots so that they can be protected from severe frosts.
What the specialists say
Lady Skelmersdale, owner, Broadleigh Gardens, Somerset
"Grape hyacinths have a rather bad name but only a few varieties are invasive or have masses of overwintering leaves. Most are easy and very useful garden plants with a variety of uses. Their vivid blue shades are a good foil for the yellow of daffodils.
"I love the new cultivars like ‘Ocean Magic’ and ‘White Magic’. They are perfect companion plants for other spring bulbs in containers. Of the species I find M. latifolium well-behaved with its single broad-leaf and dramatic two-tone flowers. M. macrocarpum has a fabulous scent but is sadly not such a good plant for the open garden.
"Grape hyacinths are among the easiest and trouble-free spring bulbs. They are very perennial — even those that have been grown in containers will continue to flower well for another season if planted out. They are perfect companion plants for containers, can be used to edge rose beds, and vigorous varieties like M. armeniacum will grow in dry inhospitable places such as under trees or on the top of walls. Deadheading will control varieties that seed excessively."
Chris Ireland-Jones, owner, Avon Bulbs, Somerset
"Muscari perform the function of providing the backdrop to the main display that the bigger and more colourful bulbs achieve. They are aided in this by the other little blue bulbs — Brimeura, chionodoxa, anemone, Puschkinia and Scilla.
"In the garden, M. azureum does not spread very fast and is an early-flowering, pretty, light blue with attractively pointed heads as they emerge. In raised beds in the sun under sheltered conditions, species from the Mediterranean such as M. macrocarpum or M. muscarimi have a fantastic perfume.
"My most important piece of advice is to avoid all the ones that split up, set seed and proliferate too quickly. I would avoid any species of M. armeniacum or its hybrids. They are the devil to get rid of."
David Anderson, manager, Keston Garden Centre (part of Wyevale Garden Centres group)
"At Wyevale we sell two varieties — the popular M. armeniacum and the not so popular but lovely M. aucheri ‘Ocean Magic’. Both are hardy, spring-flowering grape hyacinth that produce lovely conical clusters of fragrant, sea-blue flowers. Ideal in containers, borders, rock and gravel gardens or garden edging.
"We sell these wonderful easy-to-plant bulbs in autumn for spring flowering. We advise customers to plant them 8-10cm deep in moderately fertile well-drained soil, in full sun or partial shade.
"We also encourage cocktail planting and suggest mixing Muscari, tulips and crocus in the same planting scheme to prolong the customers’ spring flowering time, and of course adding those all-important linked sales.
"In early spring we sell Muscari in 9cm and one-litre pots with their long angular leaves showing and protruding columns of tight grape-like buds, ready to burst into blue waves of colour. We also sell these gems in traditional zinc planters, baskets and small mixed arrangements in versatile and
"We typically merchandise Muscari in a themed woodland spring setting, mixing with tall narcissi to the rear of the display in mass, with medium-height ferns intermingled to add that woodland feel. Then the Muscari to the front in tight sways of curves on a bed of woodchip bark."
Species and varieties
M. armeniacum AGM (H5), or grape hyacinth, is a vigorous bulb species that has grass-like mid-green leaves that appear before the cone-shaped spikes of white-tipped, deep-violet/blue flowers in April and May. Considered invasive but useful in difficult areas such as dry shade. Height: 15-20cm.
M. armeniacum ‘Peppermint’ has the palest blue flowers with an eruption of white blooms at the tip of each spike. The flowers, which are borne from early March to late April, also have a sweet fragrance. Height 10cm.
M. armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis’ is a robust and strong variety that features pale powder-blue flowers. Not quite as vigorous as its parent. Use in a woodland garden, at the front of a border or in containers. Height: 10cm.
M. aucheri ‘Blue Magic’ is an early-flowering form with neat mid-blue flowers from early March to early April. Its leaves are more compact than M. armeniacum AGM and each bulb will produce a few flower stems. Height: 10cm.
M. aucheri ‘White Magic’ has pale-green buds that open to show white flowers — a lovely contrast. The flower spikes look pointed in bud but rounded when fully open. Less vigorous and invasive than M. armeniacum AGM. Height: 12cm.
M. azureum AGM (H5) has a neat head of soft powder-blue flowers. An easy species to grow and not at all invasive. Height: 12cm. There is also a popular white form.
M. botryoides ‘Album’ produces neat heads of pure-white flowers on slender stems. Less vigorous or invasive than M. armeniacum AGM. Plant in pots, alpine beds or woodland settings, or use to fill gaps at the front of sunny borders. Flowers April-May. Height: 20cm.
M. comosum ‘Plumosum’ is also known as the feather grape hyacinth because of its large plumed lavender flowers. Not commonly seen but a striking addition to borders or in pots. Flowers May-June. Height: 10-25cm.
M. latifolium AGM (H5) has a two-tone spike of flowers with dark-blue grape-like buds making up the bottom two-thirds, topped with a tuft of lilac/blue flowers. Broad flat leaves wrap themselves around stems. Plant in naturalistic drifts in an orchard or meadow, or into a patio pot. Flowers in March. Height: 15cm.
M. macrocarpum ‘Golden Fragrance’ PBR was selected for its fascinating flowers that begin a violet colour and age to a yellow, giving off a banana-tinged perfume. Prefers a really dry and hot spot — try them in a large clay pot and protect from extreme frost.
M. muscarimi is an interesting species with flowers that begin a creamy yellow colour fading to a blue/grey. Has a sweet musky scent. Flowers April-May. Height: 15cm.
Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library