Hyacinths

Growing hyacinths for a sweet smelling spring

Hyacinths are being overlooked by modern gardeners, maybe because they have a formal look about them and modern gardens seem to tend toward informal.  But hyacinths can find a place in any garden and they are well worth planting.  The lovely smell alone, a smell that says spring is here, makes them worthy of a spot in your flower beds.

Hyacinths now come in many colors and several forms.  They can be tucked into rock gardens, planted in swirling masses in the border, planted in large containers, or lined up in formal rows and blocks along a path.  They can even be forced to bloom inside.

Hyacinths are native to the eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asia.  The species commonly found in cultivation is Hyacinthus orientalis and originates in SE Asia.  Another species of plant with the common name of grape hyacinth belongs to the genus Muscari and there are several species of Muscari in cultivation.  Muscari have smaller leaves and flowers than the garden hyacinth and are often used in naturalized areas.  In this article the common garden hyacinth, Hyacinthus orientalis, and the care of them  in a garden setting, will be discussed.

Hyacinths have been in cultivation a long time, they were grown by the Greeks and Romans in their gardens.  In early European gardens hyacinths were very popular, at one point there were over 2000 varieties being sold in the Dutch bulb markets. Today there are still a hundred or so named varieties being sold.  They are considered to be – as many spring blooming plants are- a symbol of re-birth and renewal and are popular Easter plants.

Hyacinths begin growth in spring with 4-6 green strap-like leaves. The flower stalk will emerge soon after from the center of the plant.  The leaves will yellow and die about a month after flowering and the plant will go into dormancy until the next spring.

Hyacinths bloom in spring, from mid to late spring, depending on variety.  In zones 5-6 that’s generally mid-April to mid-May.  The flowers are composed of 6 petals fused together to form a tube that flares open at the end, but there are many garden varieties with doubled flowers.  They are crowded together on a spike about 8 inches long in the center of the plant.  Most hyacinths have a strong, pleasing fragrance.

Flower color ranges from the beautiful blues associated with the name hyacinth to purple, red, orange, pink, white and yellow.  Hyacinths are a wonderful way to bring vibrant color, especially blues, to the flower border.

Care and planting of hyacinths

Hyacinths are generally purchased as bulbs, which are planted in the fall. Look for large, plump, firm bulbs.  Plant the bulbs in full sun in a well-drained location.  Bulbs can be planted under trees that leaf out slowly in the spring, as they will get enough sun before going dormant. Bulbs may do all tight for a year or two in partial shade, but won’t last as long or multiply a well as those in sunnier locations.

Hyacinth bulbs are poisonous so they should be kept away from children and pets.  Hyacinths are seldom touched by mice, rabbits or deer, both bulbs and flowers. Some gardeners may experience skin irritation when the bulbs are handled so using gloves is advised at planting time. 

The hyacinth bulbs color can give you an idea of the flower color, with purplish bulbs producing blue or purple flowers, reddish bulbs producing pink or red flowers, yellow bulbs yellow or white flowers.  Plant the bulbs with the pointed side up and about twice as deep as the bulb is long.  Hyacinths look best when planted in groups; you can plant them as close as 6 inches.  They will last for several years in the garden and bulbs will slowly multiply.

Do not add bone meal to the holes when planting nor put fertilizer in the bottom of holes.  You can mix some slow release fertilizer in the soil as you refill in around the bulbs.  If fall is very dry a watering will help get the bulbs producing a root system, but fall watering is seldom needed.

In spring when bulbs begin emerging a slow release fertilizer for flowers can be used around the plants.  This can help make bigger flowers the next year and help the bulbs multiply.  In zones 5-6 watering usually isn’t needed in spring but if it gets dry, water the plants. 

Let the bulbs foliage die down naturally, as it is producing food for the bulb to make next year’s flowers.  Planting hyacinths among plants like daylilies, ferns, hosta and other perennials can hide the dying foliage.  When the leaves are limp and yellow they can be removed.

If you have forced some hyacinth bulbs to bloom inside or have bulbs grown in pots for Easter decorations you can plant these bulbs in the ground after they finish blooming but not all the bulbs handled this way will survive.  Bulbs grown in soil do better than those forced in water.  If they survive they may bloom again the next spring.


Plant plenty of hyacinths in the garden so you can cut some for bouquets and bring the lovely smell inside.  Every gardener should grow some hyacinths even if they are just a patch by the back door, so that you can truly smell spring.

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