ALTHOUGH hyacinth bulbs do not flower outdoors until March, they are a traditional pot plant for the festive period, being tricked into flowering early. Hyacinth is sold as single flowers or groups of bulbs in a bowl in flower, or at least showing the emerging flower spike.
Hyacinths are related to wild native bluebells but come originally from Turkey and Syria. The flowers are much larger than the wild bluebell but have a recognisably similar structure with lots of small tubular flowers on a central stem. The wild forms have been much bred by growers, mainly in Holland, over the centuries.
The flowers can be red, pink, purple, various shades of blue, even yellow, and greenish white. All kinds have a strong, sweet fragrance, which can perfume a whole room or hallway, although some people find it overpowering.
The most simple way to grow hyacinth is to set a single bulb over a tall glass, filled with water. Special hyacinth glasses hold the bulb and facilitate the growth of the roots down into the water, but any tall glass that is sufficiently narrow will do.
The bulb is placed just over the water level, not actually sitting in the water, and occasional topping up may be needed. It is fascinating to watch the long, white roots grow down into the water – an interesting project for children to try.
Hyacinths that are forced for Christmas are given special warm treatment to simulate a warm summer and this encourages them to flower early. The prepared bulbs can be placed in pots or bowls as a group, in September, and buried with soil, sand or ashes outdoors until November.
Roots and the flower bud develop and when the pot or bowl is brought indoors, the bulbs think spring has arrived and they duly flower. The introduction to warmth should be gradual or the bulbs can shoot out tall, weak stems that soon fall over.
The hyacinths in flower in garden centres now have been forced by these methods, and are mainly used indoors as seasonal pot plants. But they are still hardy, and can be used outside now in winter pots and containers if you want to perk up a doorstep container at short notice.
After flowering, hyacinth bulbs shrink considerably as they have exhausted their store of nutrients. The spent bulbs can be planted outdoors to flower again in good soil in a sunny spot but they are prey to snails, which are very partial to them.