Sunday, November 7, 2010

Hyacinth Crazy

Growing Hyacinths out of season, also known as forcing, is a lesson in patience. Just like the Little Red Hen, early preparation is the key to sure success. Growing these amazingly fragrant bulbs is a fantastic winter hobby for those that are itching to get to spring just a little faster.
.....very collectible Hyacinth Vases, or forcing glasses....each bulb is matched to a specific vintage or antique vase, labeled on the bottom. There are forty + varieties in my collection (bulbs)
I began forcing Hyacinth and other bulbs as a boy with my dad. We had a small collection of Danish forcing vases brought back from living abroad in the late fifties and early sixties. We would search out the largest bulbs we could find at local garden centers, or order from "wish book" catalogs that I read front to back. My father taught me to always add a little activated charcoal to the shapely vases to keep the water sweet. We would wash the vases, and fill them nearly to the "neck" where the fat bulb would sit. The water level should always be just below the base of the bulb, not sitting in the water, but just above.

You can force any Hyacinth bulb, not just the more expensive, pre-chilled varieties. Once the vase is filled, adding a piece or two of the activated charcoal, you are ready to go! All the bulbs need now is eight to twelve weeks of cool rooting in darkness. The ideal temperature is between forty degrees and fifty degrees. Ideal places are cabinets in heated garages, cool cellars, deep cold frames or even that spare beer refrigerator down in the basement! make sure the vases never freeze, just cool and dark. Now check on the water level every few weeks, and top it up to the base of the bulb, but just below it. If the water gets cloudy, just change it-but this rarely happens.

Collectible antique Hyacinths in pots, ready to root and be cooled...the anticipation is killing me!

Every variety has it's own internal clock that is controlled by the gibberellic acid that needs time to develop in order for the flower stem to grow and lengthen properly. Some Hyacinth may only need eight weeks or so,others will need more time. How will you know when to bring your Hyacinths out of there cold-dark period? The roots will have filled out the bottom of the vase, and the top growth will have lengthened a few inches, then they can start their journey to bloom!

Hyacinth "Midnight Mystique" sold for over $100.000 per bulb just ten years ago...still rare, but now affordable-the worlds first black Hyacinth, a dark purple- black-these were hard to come by!

When the bulbs are well rooted, and top growth is evident, bring your Hyacinth vase into a cool, dim light for a day or so, then to brighter light still. Turn the vase regularly to keep the bulb growing evenly. The cooler the spot, the longer the Hyacinth will stay in bloom!

 If the vase method sounds too hard (it's so easy), an even easier way is to keep the bulbs in a refrigerator, in a brown paper bag, and chill for at least eight to twelve weeks, then let the bulbs root directly in cool brightness, even a kitchen window sill.

I'm collecting antique varieties, and for those, I have bulbs growing in a sandy potting soil, so I can easily keep the rare varieties in their own pots. Each variety has it's own unique scent, like a rose does. Colors- wow, so many great subtle tints, like water colors or multi- colored gem stones. To grow and "force" Hyacinths in pots, just use a sandy soil mix, place the bulb below the soil surface, water well and let root for the eight to twelve weeks in cool darkness-a cold frame, root cellar (I know, who has them any more..) cool basement or even a trench out in the vegetable garden.Can you use a refrigerator? yes you can! If they are outside in the ground, fill clean sand around the pots, then cover with straw and a few boards to keep them tucked in for the rooting period. Bring in a few pots at a time to draw out the season-well before the real spring has arrived! Easily found antique varieties include pale pink "Lady Derby"-1875, pure white "L'innocence"-1863, Easter yellow "City of Haarlem"-1893 and the beautiful salmon "Gypsy Queen"-1927  Try your local garden center, or order on line from McClure and Zimmerman, Old House Gardens, or Brent and Becky's bulbs. If the provenance isn't important to you, just buy a mixed bag from your local home store and be pleasantly surprised when they bloom, you won't be disappointed! Most will cost a dollar or less, more rare varieties will be much higher in cost.

Hyacinths make wonderful cut flowers, and are spectacular for personal flowers in elegant wedding work, I like to use Hyacinths with other spring bulb flowers like Anemones, that compliment each other.This is a simple bride's maid bouquet, accented with aqua-teal French ribbon...and it smells so good!

Hyacinth "Peter Styvesant" with green Dianthus and double Tulips...below, with white Hydrangea and ageratum


  1. you've inspired me. we used to force hyacinth bulbs when we first got married. you are right - it does take patience.

  2. David, your patience will be richly rewarded!Just don't forget to mark your calendar...Brian

  3. Reading about all your beautiful hyacinth bulbs, makes me want to try them. I've had the "Paper whites" and plenty of amarallas bulbs. But, figured anything else would be hard. Love your Bouquets.

  4. Thanks cconz! try some hyacinths, not hard at all!

  5. Brian, your knowledge of this subject is amazing! And, I can feel your excitement and enthusiasm too. I am eager to see your hyacinths in bloom!

  6. Thanks Tatyana, I bet there are some great Russian Hyacinth vases, I've never seen one that I know of, but I bet they exist! I'm in the midst of the Holiday rush at work, hope you have a great Thanksgiving!

  7. Anything great is worth waiting for, as are the hyacinths. I have not tried my hand growing them, but I think I just might try it. Your arrangments are beautiful! Don't living plants bring an excitement that is sometimes indescribable? I can't wait to see your bulbs in bloom! Keep us posted.

  8. thanks Ramona, hope you had a nice Thanksgiving!

  9. Brian,

    Enjoyed this article! I too have only done paper whites they are so easy. We inherited hyacinths when we bought this house. But I managed to loose them in the garden when we built the addition here. I loved the fragrance of just being in the yard when they bloomed. last year I planted new one and the fragrance was nothing compared to the old hyacinths.