The mythology of garden hyacinths

Anna Naeser

I’m crazy about flowers that grow from bulbs. Spring without purple crocus, red tulips or yellow daffodils is unthinkable. But there is a world of bulbs to discover out there. The most vibrantly colored, sweetest-scented flower from bulbs in all of spring is Hyacinthus orientalis, the hyacinth.Apollo was a one of the 12 Olympian deities of ancient Greece. Myth has it that he was a beautiful youth, always falling in love – gender or status as a mortal or immortal was no object. But he was trouble with a capital “T,” for his lovers usually came to a bad end. One of them was a handsome young prince named Hyacinthus, who accidentally was killed when they were throwing the discus at the gym one day. The distraught Apollo transformed him into a flower and thus made him immortal. Odd, then, that though the Latin name is from Greek myth, the species or wild hyacinths are called Roman hyacinths or French Roman hyacinths, said to be native to the south of France while the common or so-called Dutch hyacinth came to Europe in the mid-16th Century from Turkey with the tulip. Are you as muddled as I am now?If Old House Gardens, purveyor of heirloom bulbs, is to be believed, Hyacinthus is the most endangered of garden bulbs, immortal or not. They tell us that in 1730 some 2000 different varieties were being sold, the Victorians had hundreds to choose from – and now they can offer only a measly 18 varieties.Hyacinths have a bunch of reflexed trumpet-shaped florets clustered into a thick spike on top of a sturdy 8 to 12-inch stalk rising out of strap shaped leaves. Doyenne of bulbs Louise Beebe Wilder calls them “fat-stalked, overstuffed, overscented Levantines,” and another writer from the pantheon, George Schenk, scathingly refers to the “poisonously sweet-smelling Medusa coiffure” while Christopher Lloyd gives his backhanded approval: “Their very artificiality has its own attraction; their petals are so neatly curled and if the hyacinth scent is cloying, I am perfectly happy to be cloyed.”I probably wouldn’t have this radiant flower in my garden if someone hadn’t given me a forced white hyacinth in a pot. I let the leaves grow out and die, then in the spring planted it out into the garden. I forgot it until several years later, when it surprised me with a small, loose cluster of pure white flowers shining in the border among thyme and Oriental poppy leaves. I marveled at its grace, its delightful fragrance and its presence, and that it was unscathed by deer.So I ordered a mix in a rainbow of colors (which is always a good way to get introduced to any unfamiliar bulb) and I have discovered like Wilder did, that “even these stout fellows, when left in the ground for several years with no notice taken of them until their starched pride is somewhat subdued, acquire a slender grace and modesty that is most becoming to them and may then take their place among other spring bulbs, Daffodils, Scillas, and the like that are scattered freely about the borders in informal fashion.”This member of the Liliaceae or lily family seems a natural in our climate. It needs cold winters to succeed, and mostly sunshine with well-drained soil that is dry in summer, although it is not drought-adapted. Hyacinths bloom early – April 10 this year – and are all the more welcome for that. I think I ought to replace every tulip in the border with a hyacinth!Now is the time to order bulbs. Our local garden centers have a nice, if limited, selection of hyacinths. When I buy bulbs locally, I try to plant right away because they have been stimulated by the warmth of a building. When I order from a bulb specialist where they have been kept in cold storage until shipping, the time to plant is after the first hard frost and before the ground freezes too hard to dig a hole, so anytime between now and late November. If your bulbs arrive early, stick them in a crisper drawer in the fridge until you are ready to plant.I have my eye on an ivory white Hyacinthus orientalis called L’Innocence, from 1863, “a favorite since Civil War days,” one of the most perennial varieties, and the truly antique “Roman Blue” from 1562. Can you imagine planting a bulb that has been continuously in cultivation for more than 400 years?This is Anna’s final column for the year, and she would like to thank her readers for their time and attention. She would be happy to share her favorite bulb sources with you. Contact her at or Please put “Anna’s Garden” in the e-mail subject line.