Wonderfully scented Hyacinths

12. September 2020 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
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Hyacinth 'Delft Blue' trio © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Hyacinths ‘Delft Blue’ trio

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzung – auf Deutsch lesen – Scent in the garden is one of life’s great pleasures. Often it catches you completely by surprise. Walking through a garden you suddenly stop and start sniffing about, as your nose has hit a cloud of delicious intriguing perfume. I have watched people stop, walk back and snuffle about, nose up in the air, until they have identified the source of this unexpected delight. Many of the early-flowering plants produce powerful clouds of scent that help to attract early foraging insects like bumble bees.

Hyazinthen - Frühlingsduft © Isabelle Van Groeningen
the scent of spring in a basket

Hyacinths are one of the great scent-providers at the start of the season. For many this smell is associated with the often over-powering perfume that dominates a room during the dark season of the year. Hyacinth bulbs, forced so they no longer need a cold spell in the garden before they can flower, are a familiar feature of my childhood. Hovering just above water in tall, elegant vases, they would fill the room with their powerful perfume. I loved watching the roots develop, and the swelling of the big, fat green nose to reveal the traditional blue buds. Occasionally there would be a white one, or accidentally a pink one would emerge, but blue was the norm.

In my garden in England I would always pot up a few bulbs to stand on the table in the porch and on the table outside the kitchen. Their purpose was to welcome me (and visitors) in the nicest possible way. Outdoors the strong scent is quickly diluted and becomes a marvelous treat as you fumble about looking for house keys, or wait for somebody to open up the door. After flowering these pot-grown bulbs would always find their way into the garden.

Festival Hyacinths

I admit to having had my problems with hyacinths planted directly in the border. Their short, squat, solid appearance often seem clumsy at a time when so many fine, delicate early bulbs flower such as Scilla, Puschkinia and Muscari. But I have noticed how the second year, as the bulb has lost some of its original vigour, the flower spike becomes slenderer, the flowers are sparser, so that all in all, the appearance becomes lighter and airier. Those of you who do not want to wait till the following year to enjoy this lighter effect, should try the Festival series. Blue Festival, White Festival and Pink Festival are cultivars with a much looser habit. Each bulb will produce up to half a dozen flower stems, with produce a less dense, airier flower display much suited to border planting.

Subtle colour nuances

Not only did I find the short dumpy flowers difficult to integrate, I rarely ventured beyond the traditional white and blue hyacinths like ‘Carnegie’ and ‘Delft Blue’.  I discovered White Narcissus ‘Thalia’ and Tulip ‘Purissima’ are excellent partners for these two, though soft, creamy yellows are equally satisfying. Much depends on the overall colour scheme of the area in which they are planted.  

It is only in recent years I discovered the satisfaction of observing the intense purple ‘Woodstock’ matching perfectly Tulipa ‘Burgundy’ and the delightful early flowering pea Lathyrus vernus. The three growing together make a match made in heaven. 

Much more subtle in colour is ‘Splendid Cornelia’ whose flowers match lilacs. It combines well with the early tulip ‘Light and Dreamy’.  

Impressive colours

The Variety ‘Jan Bos’ is very loud with fuchsia-red flowers. I find this colour verging on the aggressive at that tender time of year, but know some people enjoy the brightness of it on dull days. At the opposite end of the scale ‘Dark Dimensions’ creates great drama with inky purple-blue flowers. Although the colour intrigued me at first, personally I found it unsatisfying in the border, as this dark hue becomes quite invisible against the dark soil. At the time of flowering, there is not that much greenery yet in the border to create a good contrast.

Hyacinthus 'Dark Dimensions' © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Hyacinthus ‘Dark Dimensions’

How to integrate hyacinths in a border?

Hyazinthen - Frühlingsrabatte © Isabelle Van Groeningen
spring border

You do not need dozens to make an impact, as they produce quite a bold colour statement. You also want to avoid planting them in tight clumps (i.e. putting half a dozen bulbs in one hole) as this creates a disproportionate big blob of colour. In larger beds I suggest to scatter them in airy groups, keeping colours separate.  Match them with larger-flowering bulbs like early tulips or narcissus as the early-flowering small bulbs look diminutive next to these big guys. Most important of all: Plant them somewhere where you can enjoy the clouds of perfume wafting across the border.

Hyazinthen - Zwiebeln © Isabelle Van Groeningen
hyacinths – bulbs

Treat yourself to some of these scent-bombs, but before you despair at the amount of bulbs to plant this autumn, divide it up into manageable portions. Each day a small quantity is psychologically manageable. A large box-full demanding your attention for the weekend can quickly become off-putting! 

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