‘If hyacinth scent is cloying, I am perfectly happy to be cloyed’ admitted the late charismatic plantsman Christopher Lloyd back in 1970 amongst the informative pages of his ‘Well-Tempered Garden’.
While some may find that the bulbs seductive sweet perfume lays a little heavy on the nose, British gardeners and florists have raved over this brazen counterpart of the English bluebell since Victorian times.
At the height of their popularity, around 2000 hyacinth cultivars were available, including many opulent double flowered hybrids, perplexingly difficult to place in an informal cottage-style garden.
However, it is their ability to be easily forced indoors and talent for large scale bedding displays, that has won enormous praise over the centuries. ‘Hyacinths are numbered among those plants that one would like to have, both in the house and out, in far greater quantity than one’s means allow’ continues Mr Lloyd within ‘Features’, speaking of the bulbs alluring appeal.
Forced indoors in bowls or three-in-a-pot arrangements, hyacinths provide a natural room freshener, fragrancing the air with their intoxicating aroma. Described as ‘pear drops, ‘rich cinnamon’ or even ‘fragrant clove Pinks’, the pungency of their sweet scent only compliments the beguiling charm of their bell-shaped flowers, edged with neatly curled petals in jewel-like colours and held above plump stems and leaves.
Taking their name from Hyakinthos, a young man from Greek mythology, hyacinths have been cultivated across Europe since Roman times. Belonging to the encompassing family Hyacinthaceae of familiar woodland bluebells, Scilla and Muscari, the lightly scented original species Hyacinthus orientalis, (from which all modern day cultivars have sprung), created a stir in 17 th century Holland amongst the wealthiest flower bulb collectors.
Soon swollen in numbers and ‘improved’ in colour, by the Victorian era hyacinths had become an “everyman’s” flower, embraced for their relative affordability and ease of cultivation. Mimicking the hourglass figure that was so in vogue at the time, the highly collectable and decorative hyacinth glasses quickly made this the most desirable indoor bulb for forcing.
Just as popular today, specially ‘prepared’ winter flowering bulbs are perfect for recreating period charm with a deliciously scented indoor Christmas display. Bring the spicy perfume of spring and a splash of early seasonal colour to cool rooms, conservatories and porches, with a bowl or two of these historical favourites.
The secret of success lies in the careful choice of cultivars and times of planting. Set treated bulbs for forcing in early September for a display in time for Christmas, or October for blooms to welcome in the New Year. If time is short, buy pre-established arrangements, showing colour and well on their way to flowering. However tempting, never mix varieties in a single bowl – the chances are they will flower at different times producing a mismatched arrangement.
For indoor culture, bury bulbs up to half their depth in bulb fibre (if bulbs are to be discarded afterwards) or, choose John Innes potting compost for later replanting outdoors. Keep cool, dark and damp for 8-12 weeks allowing an adequate root system to develop, by which time promising new shoots will have reached 5cm (2”) from the top of each bulb. Progress on to a warmer environment of 10ºC (50ºF), accompanied by as much natural light as possible.
Once the buds begin to show colour, position pots around the home or give away as thoughtful gifts, encouraging a daily turn to maintain even growth and keeping as cool and bright as possible for longer-lasting flowers.
After flowering, allow bulbs to complete their growth cycle until foliage dies down naturally, building energy for next years blooms. Cut the flower spikes off of potted bulbs and plant out in moderately fertile soil with good drainage, choosing a sunny or semi-shaded permanent position. Bulbs left to naturalise in this way may take a year or two to recover, but will eventually repay with plentiful, smaller blooms at the correct time of year. Remember to buy freshly ‘prepared’ bulbs each year to force for indoor use.
In the garden, hyacinths look spectacular in groups, intermingled through spring bedding or the fresh young shoots of peonies. Plant in blocks of a single colour, edging paths, at the front of a bed or border, or use in containers close to the house where their powerful fragrance can be fully appreciated.
IN THE GARDEN THIS WEEK…
Second only to Hyacinths in Victorian popularity, Camellias bring exotic blooms and lustrous foliage to home and garden. Hardy autumn-flowering “ sasanqua ” types are superb for offering a spring-like feel to patios and porches, way ahead of their conventional New Year-flowering rivals.