One of the loveliest scents of spring has to be hyacinths in blooms. Even at a distance, you'll notice their intense fragrance and neon bright colors.
It might surprise you to learn that hyacinths are in the lily family, but if you look closely at the individual flowers you'll see the familiar tubular shape. Dutch bulb growers have been breeding hyacinths since the 17th century and there are thousands of varieties to choose from.
Modern hyacinth are among the easiest to grow spring bulbs.
Hyacinthus is a small genus of bulbous flowers. Hyacinthus orientalis is the species from which all of the cultivars are derived. The Roman and Multiflora cultivars tend to have looser flowers than the more commonly grown Dutch hyacinth, with their large, dense flower clusters.
You may be familiar with the genus Muscari, grape hyacinth. These are not true hyacinth and are no longer even considered part of the lily family. They've been moved to Asparagaceae, so they are not covered here.
Large blocks of hyacinth will give you the strongest scent, and one that reaches the farthest. Hyacinth blooms can look a little unnatural when there are only one or two of them, but they mix well with any of the spring blooming bulbs, since they come in so many colors and sizes. Their spiky flower stalks make a nice counterpoint to cup-shaped tulips and ruffled daffodils.
The smaller Roman and Mutiflora cultivars look a bit more natural and can be used in woodland settings or along walkways.
Hyacinth bulbs are also easy to plant or force in pots. The large bulbs and sturdy stems are also wonderful grown in water, in a bulb vase—no soil required.
- Botanical name: Hyacinthus orientalis cultivars
- Common names: Hyacinth, Dutch hyacinth
- Hardiness zones: Hyacinth can be expected to survive the winter in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 9. They may need some winter protection in zones lower than 5 and some pre-chilling in Zones above 7, depending on the variety. Unfortunately hyacinths are short-lived and will probably only last 3 or 4 years.
- Exposure: Plant your hyacinth bulbs in full sun to partial shade. As with all spring bulbs, hyacinths sprout, bloom and start to fade into dormancy before deciduous trees fully leaf out, so you don't have to worry about too much shade from nearby trees.
- Mature size: Size always depends on the variety you are growing and the growing conditions, but most hyacinths reach a mature size of about 6 to 12 inches tall and 4 to 9 inches wide.
- Bloom period: Hyacinth are early bloomers. Depending on your hardiness zone, they will bloom in late winter or early spring.
Planting Hyacinth Bulbs
Hyacinth bulbs are not particular about soil pH, but they do best in a soil that is neutral to slightly acidic. They will not tolerate wet soils. Hyacinth bulbs contain a substance that can cause an itchy skin reaction in some people. If you are sensitive, where gloves when handling the bulbs.
Planting Hyacinth Bulbs in the Ground
Most varieties of hyacinth bulbs are fairly large. Plant them pointed-end up, about three times as deep as they are wide. For most varieties, this will be 7 to 8 inches deep. They can be planted shallower in warmer areas, where they will need to be dug and chilled if you want them to bloom again. Give hyacinths some room to spread out by spacing them about 5 to 6 inches apart.
Planting Hyacinth Bulbs in Pots
Hyacinth bulbs need a chilling period, in order to bloom. If you pot or plant them outdoors, this shouldn't be a problem. If you are potting them indoors for forcing early blooms, you will either need to purchase pre-chilled bulbs or pre-chill them yourself.
When planting in pots, the bulbs can be spaced more closely than when planting in the ground, because the bulbs won't need room to multiply. You can squeeze them in so they are almost touching, but leave room for some soil to hold water.
Keep the soil damp but not soaking wet until the bulbs sprout. Then, water whenever the soil dries out. Once the bulbs have sprouted, move them to indirect sunlight. Cool temperatures will keep them in bloom longer.
Caring for Hyacinth Plants
Water the ground well after you plant the bulbs. Continue watering into winter, if there is no regular rain, but allow the ground to dry out between watering, so the bulbs do not rot.
Some of the taller varieties will flop. You can stake them, if you only have a few. Otherwise consider planting them closer together so that they support each other. Rich soil has been blamed for floppy hyacinth, so go easy on the organic matter when preparing or amending soil.
Once the bulbs have finished blooming, cut off the flower stalks so the plant's efforts can go into storing energy in the bulb. Alternatively, you could run your hand up the stalk and knock off the flowers, so that they cannot go to seed. Don't remove the leaves until they have started to turn yellow.
Feed the bulbs each spring when the new growth first appears by scratching some bulb food into the nearby soil and watering well.
Hyacinth bulbs don't usually live for more than about 3 or 4 years. If you'd like to propagate more hyacinth bulbs, wait until late summer and gently lift the bulbs. Remove the small offsets forming around the edges of the bulbs and replant everything, including the original bulbs. Be patient, because it will take a few years for the offsets to bloom. Since the plants can disappear in mid-summer, mark their locations while they're still in bloom.
- Hyacinth Orientalis 'Blue Jacket'—a rich bluish-purple with single flowers
- Hyacinth Orientalis 'Carnegie'—pure white, single flowers
- Hyacinth Orientalis 'City of Haarlem'—single, buttery-yellow flowers
- Hyacinth Orientalis 'Delft Blue'—single soft blue flowers
- Hyacinth Orientalis 'Jan Bos'—deep, fuchsia colored single flowers
Pests and Problems
The biggest hazard for hyacinth bulbs are rot and rodents. Make sure the soil is able to drain between watering and rain. If the bulbs sit in cool, wet soil, they will eventually rot.
All kinds of rodents will munch on hyacinth bulbs. You can protect them somewhat by throwing a handful of gravel into the planting hole or you can try commercial rodent deterrents. An easier method is to interplant them with daffodils, which rodents tend to avoid.