Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Horticultural Hyacinths in Your Winter Garden

From Christmas until the beginning of spring, forced hyacinths add cheer when days are short and dull. Note the root development.

Forced hyacinths tucked in among green foliage houseplants create a winter garden atmosphere. The planter is a Louis XVI wine cooler with a copper well.

Horticultural hyacinths in your winter garden? That sounds expensive and rarefied, but you don’t need a vast conservatory or staff of gardeners to enjoy the splendid effect. In fact it is easy and inexpensive to have them.

At this time of the year, I am attracted to the colourful displays of spring bulbs at garden centres. Raised to perfection in Holland, world centre of the spring bulb industry for over 200 years, there are tulips, crocus, hyacinths, narcissus and daffodils in hundreds of varieties and colours.

One of my annual autumn rituals is buying spring bulbs for planting in October or November. Winter in Canada is lengthy, and looking forward to springtime flowers helps me through the season. In addition to those in the garden, I buy a few dozen hyacinths which I force for indoor use. From Holland come special glass jars made specifically for forcing the hyacinth. They are hourglass shaped and water is filled to below the "waist,” and the bulb placed above it.

These are put into a cool (but not freezing) dark place, such as a garage, cellar, or refrigerator, for 8-10 weeks. After that, they can be put in a window sill, and soon exquisite, fragrant hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis) will grace your window sill. I have them among pots of greenery such as ivy and philodendron, and vases of cut forsythia branches that can be forced after January. The effect is lush and pleasing when ice and sleet cover the view beyond the windowpanes.

This is a very simple, foolproof procedure that will allow you to have spring flowers for most of the winter. The hyacinth bulbs and the special glasses are available at plant stores from September up until Christmas. Hyacinths come in many new colours. There are yellow, peach, and orange as well as the classic purple, mauve, white, and pink.

When filling a bulb glass, make sure the water level just grazes the bottom of the bulb (if it is much higher they tend to get mouldy). Make sure that the cool spot doesn’t drop below freezing. One year we had a record cold spell, and most of my hyacinth glasses froze and broke in the root cellar where I keep them.

The hyacinth bulb sits above the "waist" of the special bulb glass. Water just touches the bottom of the bulb where roots very quickly emerge.

hyacinths in different types of bulb glasses after 6-10 weeks in a dark cold cellar

Within a week of being placed in water, the bulbs develop a vigorous root system.

The glasses themselves can be works of art. Regular plain glass ones from Holland are about $4.00 each, although they are often available at garage sales or thrift stores for a quarter. However, there are many old examples such as Victorian art glass or cut crystal, cranberry glass, tinted Depression glass, mid century Scandinavian or German art glass, and other types that are highly collectable, sometimes costly examples.

a chunky green Depression glass example of a bulb glass

an elegant crystal bulb glass with a swirl design; a very durable heavy glass utilitarian type preferred by serious hyacinth fanciers

Whether you admire forced hyacinths for the bulb itself, or for the interesting vintage containers that have been made to hold them over the past century, the fresh, somewhat cloves-like scent issuing from the up to 70 florets of a single fresh hyacinth will bring springtime to your home, many weeks before it comes to the garden.

a colourful trio of vintage hyacinth glasses; the tall blue one is an unusual 1960s example with a Jetsons aesthetic

The crisp form of these mid century European bulb glasses would look great in a modern interior.

A very deep pink, almost red hyacinth will be ready for Christmas if planted now. This robust and fragrant variety is "Jan Bos."

Photos by SwF


  1. Hyacinths along with most other spring bulbs are my favourite flowers. I look so forward to spring when they are all flowering. I love the scent of Hyacinths as well as jonquils which would have to be an all time favourite.

    I would love to force my own bulbs, however unfortunately do not have a space where I can do this (Tiny condo and the refridgerator is full). This was an extremely informative post. Are all thos wonderful hyacinths your own?

  2. Hi David,

    Thanks for stopping by. If you like the scent of hyacinths you must love Penhaligon's English Bluebell which is very close to the scent of some hyacinths (some colours like the white aren't nearly as strong as the pink, purple or mauve). I was told that this fragrance was a favourite of Diana.

    Although you haven't space for forcing, potted ones are always availble at the greengrocer for almost the same price as the bulbs unpotted. Have you tried forcing forsythia branches in January? Just put a vase of cut branches in a sunny location, and shortly you'll have golden blossoms.

    Yes, the hyacinths are mine, from a previous winter. Even when they aren't in bloom, I like seeing them in this undeveloped stage when I go to the cellar for potatoes or a bottle of wine. I think of all the flowers I have yet to enjoy or pass to friends and neighbours when it is so bitter out.

  3. What a wonderful posting - I've never seen this process before, but after seeing your photographs, I'd be tempted to always keep the bulbs indoors. I favor the clear glass bowls - they reveal the roots as beautiful art. Mark

  4. Hyacinths bring joy, the brighter the color, the softer the scent. Never place a white hyacinth at the dinner table, it's scent overpowers the food.
    Beyond that, I have no complaints, and I agree with Mark about showing the roots.
    X David, NYC

  5. Apropos to nothing concerning this hyacinth post, thank you for that bittersweet link to Lotte Lenya and for your kind words.
    You and Lotte are both gems.
    X David, NYC

  6. Good Lord! That's what those are for? Right, out from behind the bar and off to find some bulbs... .

    Just kidding. I didn't use one for a decanter, but I have always wondered. Thanks for enlightening me.