By Julie Christensen
Native to Asia and southern Europe, grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) make a long-lived, maintenance-free addition to the spring bulb garden. Unlike tulips, they don’t peter out after a year, but steadily spread over several years. In fact, you may have to dig them up after a few years to keep them in bounds. Grape hyacinth bulbs are also easier to plant than most spring bulbs because they only need a planting depth of 3 inches.
Grape hyacinth flowers belong to the lily family and are distantly related to hyacinths. They’re smaller than regular hyacinths, growing only 8 inches tall. They produce clusters of blue or purple flowers on thin stalks that resemble tiny bunches of grapes. The flowers are scented, although their fragrance lacks the heady intensity of hyacinths.
Unlike most spring flowering bulbs, the strap-like foliage of grape hyacinths dies back in the spring after the plants bloom, only to reemerge in fall. The foliage survives through the winter unless the weather is extremely cold. Grape hyacinths are hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 8. They need at least 10 to 12 weeks of cold dormancy to bloom well in the spring.
Planting and Growing Grape Hyacinths
Buy and plant grape hyacinths in bulk for the best display. Choose bulbs that are firm and free of any nicks or cuts. Avoid those with black spots or other signs of fungal disease. Plant the small, onion-shaped bulbs in the fall, at least six weeks before the first heavy frost so the roots become established. Amend the soil with compost and a bit of bone meal at planting time.
Plant grape hyacinths in sun or shade. They’ll grow more quickly in sun, but blooms tend to last longer in partial shade. Grape hyacinths bloom for three weeks in mid-to-late spring, a bit later than most other spring-blooming bulbs, so the leaves may already have unfurled on deciduous trees. This is important to remember. Most spring-blooming bulbs bloom before trees bear leaves, so they have full sun even when planted under trees. This may not be the case with grape hyacinths.
Water the bulbs immediately after planting them and again in the spring, as soon as new growth emerges. Keep the soil slightly moist during the flowering season. Cut back the foliage only after it completely dies back to the ground in early summer. Fertilize grape hyacinths after blooming with ¼ cup bone meal for every 100 square feet of soil.
Potential Pests and Problems
Grape hyacinths are generally pest and problem free, although they are prone to viruses. Plant the bulbs in well-draining soil and space them adequately. Use soaker hoses, rather than overhead sprinklers to control the spread of disease and remove any diseased plants promptly.
Grape hyacinths spread both by division and self-seeding and they can become invasive. Plant them in rock gardens, containers or other areas with clearly defined boundaries. Dig up and divide the plants in fall if they become too numerous.
Varieties to Try
- ‘Album’ produces fragrant, white flowers, but it has less vigor than standard blue varieties.
- ‘Fantasy Creation’ has double-blue flowers.
- ‘Superstar’ is an extravagant plant. The stalks produce deep-blue flowers fringed with white. The top flowers are a paler blue.
- ‘Blue Spike’ is a late-blooming plant with flax-blue flowers.
To learn more about grape hyacinths, visit the following links:
Grape Hyacinth: Small Plants with Big Impact from Iowa State University Extension
Grape Hyacinth from the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension
A good video overview of growing grape hyacinth on YouTube.