By Julie Christensen
Bulbs take a starring role in the early spring garden – blooming long before other plants emerge. Tulips and daffodils are probably the best known bulb blooms, but you should include hyacinths (Hyacinthus) in your spring landscape design, as well. Native to the Mediterranean, hyacinth flowers need less chill time than tulips or daffodils, making them a safer choice in warm climates.
Hyacinth flowers also have a sweet, pleasing fragrance – which is completely lacking in many other bulb flowers. Additionally, the bulbs, leaves and blooms produce oxalates and will irritate the skin, throat and stomach. For this reason, deer, mice and squirrels leave them alone. If the wildlife has wreaked havoc with your tulips, hyacinths might be your go-to substitute. Note that hyacinths and grape hyacinths are different species, with grape hyacinths being members of the lily family.
Hyacinths need the same care as most other spring-blooming bulbs. They are planted in the fall because they need several weeks of chill time to bloom in the spring. They’re prone to bulb rot, so make sure you plant them in light, well-draining soil. They can also be planted in pots or even forced indoors. Hyacinths are available in many pastel shades, including white, pink, blue and purple. The clusters of fragrant flowers form on stiff stalks. Because of this stiff, vertical form, hyacinths look best planted en masse or grouped with other plants.
Planting Hyacinth Bulbs
Hyacinths need at least 10 to 13 weeks of temperatures between 35 to 48 degrees to bloom well. Plant them in the fall several weeks before the first hard frost. Hyacinths are hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9, but they don’t always bloom predictably in warm climates — choose a variety adapted to warm weather. You can also store the bulbs in the refrigerator for several weeks before planting them to improve your chances of flowering.
To plant hyacinths, choose a location that gets full sun to partial shade. Keep in mind that a site that’s shady in the summer may get sunlight in early spring because deciduous trees and shrubs will still be bare. Amend the soil in the entire area with compost, manure and a bit of peat moss to improve drainage and fertility. Plant the bulbs 4 to 6 inches deep, making sure that the pointed tip is facing up.
Cover the hyacinths with soil and firm the soil down. Water hyacinths occasionally during very dry fall weather. Fertilize hyacinths when the greens first emerge in the spring with a bulb fertilizer. If the weather is dry, you can water once a week or so, but don’t overdo it. Like all bulbs, hyacinths store energy from the leaves for the next season’s growth. After the blooms fade, leave the leaves in place until they’re brown and withered.
Forced bulb flowers bring hope and cheer in the dead of winter when nothing is growing outdoors. They make a wonderful holiday gift and can be forced to bloom anytime from late fall through spring. To force hyacinths indoors, choose varieties especially suited to forcing. Many companies pre-treat the bulbs so they need a shorter chill time, but read the packaging carefully.
Store hyacinth bulbs in a cool, dark room until you’re ready to prepare them for forcing. Store them open in a tray or loosely in an open brown paper bag. Ten to 13 weeks before you want them to bloom, place them in pots with a sterile potting mix. Be sure to choose a mix that does not contain fertilizer. It should contain a mix of sand, peat, loamy soil or perlite. You can use any type of pot you like, but make sure it has adequate drainage holes. Hyacinth bulbs contain oxalic acid, and can irritate the skin. Run the bulbs under running water to remove some of the acid and wear gloves while handling them.
Fill the pot half full of potting soil. Add the bulbs, making sure the tips are pointing up. You can place the bulbs so they touch one another. One bulb is plenty for a 4-inch pot, place two or three bulbs in a 6-inch pot and six or more in larger pots. Cover the bulbs with potting soil so the bulbs sit ¼ inch beneath the surface. Water the pot and place the bulbs in a refrigerator set at 35 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Most fridges are set at around 40 F. Chill the pot for 10 to 13 weeks. If the bulbs were pre-chilled, you can go with the shorter time. Chill regular bulbs for at least 13 weeks.
At the end of this time, you’ll see roots coming out of the bottom of the pots. Remove the pots from the refrigerator and place them in a sunny, cool room. Keep the soil slightly moist, but don’t fertilize the plants. Once the hyacinths begin to bloom, move them out of direct sunlight to a warmer room. Plant the spent bulbs outdoors in the spring. They’ll bloom within one or two years.
Want to learn more about growing hyacinths?
Home forcing of Hyacinths from North Carolina State University Extension
Hyacinth from the University of Illinois Extension
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.