Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
The scent of hyacinth in bloom is definitely a sign of spring to me. While I prefer to look at hyacinths in my garden and smell their sweet scent drifting in my windows, this time of year a pot of blooming hyacinths indoors is a welcome sight after a long dreary winter.
Hyacinths are members of the genus Hyacinthus, which are bulbs formerly placed in the lily family Liliaceae. They are now considered to be in their own family, Hyacinthaceae.
Hyacinths are bulbs native to the eastern Mediterranean region, extending eastward to modern-day Iran and Turkmenistan. Some cultures view the hyacinth as a sign of rebirth. Persians use the hyacinth as part of their New Year celebration that occurs during the Spring Equinox.
Typically people think of large, sweet smelling spikes composed of small flowers when someone mentions hyacinths. This is the Common, Garden, or Dutch Hyacinth.
The Garden Hyacinth has been cultivated for hundreds of years. In France, oils producing its signature scent are used in perfumery. The Netherlands are a major source of cultivated bulbs sold worldwide.
Garden Hyacinths are usually planted along with other spring blooming bulbs in the fall. Plant them about two to three times as deep as they are tall. For most cultivars this will be about six inches deep, as measured from the bottom of the bulb.
Garden Hyacinths typically flower in early spring after their required winter dormancy period. They grow best in full sun to part shade in well drained but not dry soil. This type of soil can be a real trick to locate or create in central Illinois but it is possible.
If the soil is not well drained, the bulbs' lives will be short-lived, as they will likely develop rot and die, or heavy soils will constrict proper growth and storage of food for proper flowering in subsequent years. Bulbs that are deteriorating will produce smaller and smaller flower spikes each year.
There are currently over 2,000 named Garden Hyacinth cultivars. These cover a wide range of colors, from blue, white, pale yellow, pink, red or purple and all shades in between. Breeders have also selected for plants which produce anywhere from 40 to 100 flowers on each spike. A typical wild species of hyacinth would have only 10 to 20 flowers per spike.
Just like other spring flowering bulbs, it is important not to remove the leaves of the bulbs until they begin to turn yellow and wither on their own. The leaves are the means by which the plant produces energy to flower in subsequent years. If you remove them too soon, you will sacrifice bloom quality the following year. Remove the leaves too soon year after year, and flower quality will decline, and the bulb will die eventually.
I planted hyacinths because not only do I love them, the furry "friends" that visit my yard do not like to eat them. This is because the entire plant produces oxalic acid that can cause irritation, and is toxic if ingested. The bulb itself contains most of the oxalic acid. Wear gloves when planting to avoid skin irritation.
Other members of the Hyacinthaceae family such as grape hyacinths and squill also produce toxic compounds that deter wildlife. They also multiply rapidly if planted in good soil. To me this is a winning combination. I enjoy the surprise each spring to see where these two members of my garden show up; if you are a more formal gardener, you may not see this as a good thing.
Forced Garden Hyacinths are commonly found for sale in early spring. It takes at least 10 to 13 weeks of cold treatment at 35-40°F in order to produce these bulbs. You can grow your own forced bulbs with some prior planning in the fall. Hyacinth "jars" are special vases where a pre-chilled bulb is placed so that it's roots can grow downward into the water and the plant blooms without any use of soil.
People often ask me whether forced bulbs can be planted in the garden after they are done blooming. I've read some sources that say no, the process of forcing is a stress on the plant and they are not likely to recover well. But I say go right ahead and try it. What have you got to lose?
I had some forced hyacinth bulbs in a centerpiece from my bridal shower a couple of years ago. When the garden soil was workable that spring, I planted the bulbs and crossed my fingers. The flowers were long gone, but the leaves persisted for awhile, and then yellowed and died just like my other hyacinths. Last spring I was happy to see the bulbs survived and flowered. The flowers were a little sparse, but they were there. I'm hopeful that after a full year in the garden they will come back even stronger this year.