SUNDAY GARDENING – Hyacinth

Contributed By Martha Plousos
Plowing Through Life

This holiday season, I’d like to pick up some Hyacinth kits, those attractively packaged boxes that include a glass forcing vase and a white, pink or blue/purple bulb. The boxes are so alluring with their photo of the Hyacinth in full bloom that it makes it difficult to decide which colour to choose. I have a preference for the white bulb.

Some Interesting Things About Hyacinth

The wild Hyacinth is a native of Turkey and the Middle East, growing along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Homer (ancient Greek epic poet) and Virgil (classical Roman poet) both noted the sweet fragrance of this lovely plant, which signifies that it was grown in Europe as far back as the time of the Greeks and Romans.

Although it’s been around a long time, the Hyacinth did not make much of an impact until it was brought to Western Europe in the 16th century by Leonhard Rauwolf (a German physician, botanist and traveler) where it was first cultivated. By the early 1700s, the popularity of the Hyacinth had soared and there were over 2,000 cultivars available. But, like the Tulip, the Hyacinth bulbs were ridiculously expensive and were only found in the flower collections of the very rich.

The word Hyacinth comes from Hyakinthos (or Hyacinthus), an athletic, handsome young Spartan prince in Greek mythology that was loved by the god Apollo. Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto, and he was recognized as god of light, sun, truth, prophecy, archery, medicine, healing, music, poetry, arts and more. A busy and talented god indeed.
Hyakinthos was also loved by Zephyrus, god of the west wind, who was jealous that the young Spartan preferred Apollo. According to some, it was this jealousy that was responsible for the premature death of the young Spartan prince.

Here’s how the story goes…

One day, Apollo and Hyakinthos were taking turns throwing a discus. To impress the young lad, Apollo threw it with all his might. Hyakinthos, trying to impress the god in return, ran as fast as he could to catch it. The discus struck him in the head, killing him instantly. Just an unfortunate accident, right? Maybe not. Many believe that Zephyrus, blinded by jealousy, blew the discus off course, causing it to strike the young lad, fatally wounding him.

Apollo tried to revive the young Hyakinthos by applying herbs and using his healing powers, but to no avail; the handsome prince could not be saved. Filled with grief, Apollo cried: “Would that I could die for thee, Hyakinthos! I have robbed thee of thy youth. Thine is the suffering, mine the crime. I shall sing thee ever—oh perfect friend! And evermore shalt thou live as a flower that will speak to the hearts of men of spring, of everlasting youth—of life that lives forever.” (Very melodramatic, some of these gods.)

As a result, the grief-stricken god created a flower from Hyakinthos’s spilled blood, and the newly-formed petals were marked with the letters “AI AI” by the god’s tears, letters that imitated Apollo’s pain-filled groans. Of course, you and I can’t see these marks because they are invisible to mere mortals. So unless you’ve got some god-like genes in you, don’t bother checking.

It’s a pretty cool story but totally depressing. I’m not sure I’d want to be named in this manner if I was a flowering bulb. Created from someone’s spilled (possibly by murder) blood? I don’t know. But it’s mythical, so I guess it doesn’t really matter.

Anyhow.

Growing Hyacinth Indoors

To enjoy a Hyacinth flower this time of year, the bulb has to be forced. The first question is: “What is forcing?” And that’s a very good question. By definition, the term forcing means: The process of making a plant grow or flower before its natural season. This simply means that you trick the bulb, which naturally grows in spring, into growing or blooming when it shouldn’t, like during the winter months. Other words that can be applied are: manipulate, fool, dupe, deceive, con and mislead, all of which sound pretty mean and cruel.

The next question is: “What kind of person takes advantage of a helpless and naïve little bulb?” A plant-starved, flower-deprived, cold-weather-suffering northerner, that’s who. Those fortunate enough to live in warm regions where flowers and greenery grow year round outdoors have no idea what it’s like to live in an area where – for several months – you don’t so much as catch a glimpse of a blade of grass when you glance outside a frost-covered window of your heated home that is as dry as the Sahara desert, which, incidentally, you share with spider mites because they like the heat and low humidity and end up moving in – whether you like it or not. So yeah, we’re guilty of bulb manipulation. And totally shameless.

Alright, let’s move along.

First, purchase a healthy bulb. If you are buying a Hyacinth growing kit, don’t be shy to open up the box to take a closer look. Take the bulb out of the box, place it in the palm of your hand and give it a gentle squeeze. It should feel firm. There should be no signs of shriveling, decay, scars, nicks, mold, mildew, visible damage or offending odors. If the bulb is dried up, wet, squishy, light in weight or obviously unhealthy, move on to another one.

Once you’ve selected that perfect bulb, the ‘forcing’ period will need to be applied. Hyacinth requires a period of cold in order to bloom. If you have purchased a ‘prepared’, ‘pre-chilled’ or ‘forced’ bulb (a bulb that has been put through a treatment process, making it specially-designed to flower more easily and earlier than a bulb that hasn’t undergone this preparation process), the mandatory cooling period will be from 8 – 10 weeks. A bulb that is not ‘pre-chilled’ will need 12 – 14 weeks of cold.

Note: The ‘forcing’ period is very important; do not compromise this. A Hyacinth that is not given an adequate cooling period will probably still send up a bloom, but the flowers may never develop fully; they might even open when they’re barely out of the bulb, leaving you with a stunted, deformed plant.

This is what you need to do:

If you’ve purchased a growing kit, a glass ‘forcing’ vase will be provided, which is often shaped like an hourglass. If you only purchase a bulb, you can try to find a traditional forcing vase or you can use any type of glass vase that will support the bulb. Use your imagination; something as simple as a baby food jar works perfectly.

Fill the glass container with water to just below the neck and place the bulb on top, pointy side up. The water level should be just below the bulb; it should not touch it or rot will develop. Place the setup in a cool, dark place where the temperature remains between 4°C (40°F) – 10°C (50°F). Two ideal locations are an unheated garage or a cool cellar. If you don’t have those options, you can place the vase and bulb inside your refrigerator.

Note: If you use the fridge as your cooling place, make sure that you do not store fruits nearby, which, as they ripen, will release ethylene gas that can damage the developing flower.

Keep the bulb cool for the required amount of time, check the water level every so often and add more water if necessary, making sure it always stays just below the bulb. After a few weeks, roots will begin to emerge and eventually fill the glass. Soon after, you will notice a flower bud begin to grow from the top. When it’s at least two inches tall and the roots have grown considerably (aside from having filled the glass, they will also extend to the bottom of the glass), remove the vase/bulb setup from the fridge and place it in a low light area where temperatures are warmer but not hot, between 16°C (60°F) and to 18°C (65° F).

Do not move your bulb into bright light and warmer temperatures (about 21°C (70°F) or slightly higher) until the shoot turns green; it’s important to gradually introduce it to its final destination. The flowers will last for two to three weeks. For a longer blooming period, keep the plant in a cool area where it’s between 16°C (60°F) to 18°C (65° F).

And lastly, your Hyacinth bulb will not be a permanent member of your household the way an Aglaonema or Dracaena are. It’s a temporary, albeit beautiful, specimen that you will end up discarding after the flowers fade. Bear in mind that this is only true of a bulb forced in water, because if forced in soil, you can plant it outdoors in your garden when spring arrives. You won’t be able to grow it indoors again either way but your soil-grown bulb can be salvaged – if you want. I have discovered sources of information suggesting that a water-forced bulb can also be planted outdoors in a sunny spot after it has finished blooming, but there’s no guarantee that it will flower the next spring or ever again. In any case, you will decide what to do with your Hyacinth bulb when the time comes.

It’s a little too late to have a Hyacinth in bloom by Christmas, considering that the bulb needs a few weeks of cold treatment, but you can enjoy it after the holidays, when – if you live in a cold region like I do – there’s nothing to look at outside, apart from gray skies and mountains of snow. Some pretty, highly-fragrant (spring) flowers in the midst of all that winter is a welcome sight. Even if it’s only indoors.

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