At this time of year when we need uplifts of bright colour and potent scent, nothing provides them more compellingly than the hyacinth. Whether grown naturally outdoors, or forced in pots for a winter display on windowsills, their long-lasting, waxy-petalled candles of starry blossom are always an arresting site in shades of blue, red, pink, orange, violet, yellow and white. Although there are some double-flowered forms, recent breeding has concentrated on developing large, single flowers in clear colours.

In the wild, Hyacinthus orientalis inhabits rocky limestone slopes and cliffs in the eastern Mediterranean, including Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Wild plants are sparsely flowered, a trait adjusted over at least 400 years to produce the densely flowered types we see today. In their heyday in the 18th century, more than 2,000 varieties were listed in the Netherlands, which remains the primary source of supply. They became so popular at that time that a short-lived hyacinth mania, similar to that with tulips, broke out in Holland around 1730.

The RHS undertook a trial of recent hyacinth varieties in 2012, with six receiving the Award of Garden Merit (AGM) for outstanding performance, bringing the total of AGM varieties to 15 from the 50 or so varieties generally available. The National Collection of hyacinths held by farmer Alan Shipp in Cambridgeshire currently holds in excess of 170 varieties.

Hyacinths are adaptable bulbs, preferring a well-drained soil and sun or part shade. Plant 10cm (4in) deep in autumn for flowering from mid-March. In pots, use a multi-purpose compost, with added grit or Perlite for drainage to flower from March, or earlier if you use specially prepared bulbs.

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