Common Hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis)

Common Hyacinth, Dutch Hyacinths, Garden Hyacinth, Hyacinth

Hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis) are beautiful additions to Southern gardens. They provide vibrant floral color with tall spikes of eye-catching blooms and bright green foliage. Hyacinths are members of the Asparagaceae family. They’re perennials that produce striking, fragrant flowers, which will have you looking forward to their blooms every year. 

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Hyacinthus orientalis, the common hyacinth, garden hyacinth or Dutch hyacinth, is a species of flowering plant in the family Asparagaceae, subfamily Scilloideae, native to southwestern Asia, southern and central Turkey, northwestern Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel. It was introduced to Europe in the 16th century. It is widely cultivated everywhere in the temperate world for its strongly fragrant flowers which appear exceptionally early in the season, and frequently forced to flower at Christmas time.

It is a bulbous plant, with a 3–7 cm (1.2 – 2.8 in) diameter bulb. The leaves are strap-shaped, 15–35 cm (5.9 –13.8 in) long and 1–3 cm (0.39–1.18 in) broad, with a soft, succulent texture, and produced in a basal whorl. The flowering stem is a raceme, which grows to 20–35 cm (7.9 – 13.8 in) (rarely to 45 cm (18 in)) tall, bearing 2–50 fragrant purple flowers 2 – 3.5 cm long with a tubular, six-lobed perianth.

  1. orientalis contains alkaloids and is toxic if eaten in large quantities. The bulb, however, is the most poisonous part and should not be ingested under any circumstances.
  2. orientalis has a long history of cultivation as an ornamental plant, grown across the Mediterranean region, and later France (where it is used in perfumery), the Netherlands (a major centre of cultivation) and elsewhere.

It flowers in the early spring, growing best in full sun to part shade in well-drained, but not dry, soil. It requires a winter dormancy period, and will only persist in cold-weather regions. It is grown for the clusters of strongly fragrant, brightly coloured flowers. Over 2,000 cultivars have been selected and named, with flower colour in shades of blue, white, pale yellow, pink, red or purple; most cultivars have also been selected for denser flower spikes than the wild type, bearing 40–100 or more flowers on each spike.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Hyacinths like full sun to partial shade. Aim to give the plants at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day. As with all spring bulbs, hyacinths sprout, bloom, and start to fade before deciduous trees fully leaf out, so you don’t have to worry about too much shade from nearby trees.

Temperature and Humidity

Hyacinths can be expected to survive the winter in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 to 8. They might need some winter protection in colder zones and some pre-chilling in warmer zones, depending on the variety. In zones where winter temperatures remain above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, dig up the bulbs and chill them somewhere dark and cold for six to 10 weeks before replanting.

Watering

Water the ground well after you plant the bulbs. Continue watering into winter if there is no regular rain, but allow the ground to dry out between watering. If the bulbs sit in cool, wet soil, they will eventually rot. Check the ground by sticking your finger in, and water only when it’s totally dry. Usually, this is once or twice a week, depending on your climate. Generally speaking, about 1/2 inch of water per week—combined irrigation and rainfall—will be sufficient for hyacinths. But this depends on how well the soil drains.

Soil

Hyacinth bulbs are not particular about soil pH, but they prefer a slightly acidic to neutral soil. They also do best in soil that is loose and well-drained; they will not tolerate wet soils. Rich soil can lead to floppy stalks, so go easy on the organic matter when preparing or amending the soil.

Fertilizing

The easiest way to feed new bulbs is to toss some bulb food into the hole at planting time. There are many fertilizers available for feeding bulbs—10-10-10 is recommended—or you can use an ordinary bone meal. Feed the bulbs a mere handful at planting and again in the spring when the new growth first appears by scratching some bulb food into the nearby soil and watering well. For the amount to use, follow the product label instructions.

Planting Instructions

Most varieties of hyacinth bulbs are fairly large. For spring garden blooms, plant hyacinth bulbs in the fall six to eight weeks before the first frost. They should be placed root end down (widest side down) about 4 to 6 inches deep. Give them some room to spread out by spacing them about 3 to 6 inches apart. Cover with soil, and water well.

Pruning

Once the bulbs have finished blooming, cut off the flower stalks but allow the leaves to remain. This will encourage the plants to store energy in their bulbs for next season.

Propagation

Bulbs

Like most perennial bulbs, hyacinths are best propagated by splitting offset bulbs from the parent plant in the fall. This method can take two or three years before the bulblet grows to a size sufficient to produce large, vibrant flowers. Thus, propagating hyacinths is an activity best practiced by serious enthusiasts.

Here’s how to propagate hyacinths by splitting off the offset bulbs:

  • After the flowers have faded but before the foliage has begun to turn brown (usually in late summer or fall), dig up a mature hyacinth with a trowel. Make sure to wear gloves when handling hyacinths, as the bulbs have toxins that can cause skin irritation.
  • Wash off the soil, and separate the clump into individual bulbs—the parent bulb and bulblets.
  • Replant the bulbs immediately into well-draining soil. Mixing in sand or compost is a good idea if your soil is dense. A handful of bone meal or bulb fertilizer is also recommended at planting time.

Seeds

Growing hyacinths from seed is more challenging than propagating them from bulb divisions. It may be years before seeds are viable for planting. To grow hyacinths from seeds, here is what you need to know:

  • Start by removing hyacinth seeds from a healthy, mature plant after the flowers have faded for the season—Seed pods emerge after hyacinths bloom and mature from green to tan. 
  • After the seed pods dry and split open, remove the seeds and soak them in clean water for up to two days. 
  • Place seeds on a wet paper towel in a plastic bag and place them in the refrigerator until it’s time to plant. 
  • If planting seeds immediately, fill a seed-starting tray with a moist potting mix and spread them evenly throughout—Cover the seeds.  
  • Keep the seed-starting tray in a cold environment or greenhouse for up to a year so the plants can sprout. 
  • Transplant sprouted seedlings to their final location after a year.

Potting and Repotting 

When planting in pots, either plastic or clay will do as long as they have good drainage. The container should be roughly 6 inches deep. The width of the container depends on how many bulbs you are planting. Hyacinth bulbs in pots can be spaced more closely than when planting in the ground because the bulbs won’t need room to multiply. You can squeeze them in so they are almost touching, but leave room for some soil in between to hold water. Repotting should not be necessary if you have properly spaced your bulbs.

Ordinary commercial potting soil is fine for planting hyacinths in containers, though some people like to blend in a little sand with the potting mix. Keep the potting medium damp but not soaking wet until the bulbs sprout. Then, water whenever the soil dries out. Once the bulbs have sprouted, move them to indirect sunlight. Cool temperatures will keep them in bloom longer.

Overwintering

In colder zones (USDA zones 2 and 3), applying a thick layer of mulch over the bulb bed can allow hyacinth bulbs to survive cold winters. You also can position the bulbs an inch or two deeper at the time of planting to help insulate them. In zones 4 to 8, no winter protection should be necessary. However, if your hyacinths are outdoors in containers, cover them or move them to a sheltered spot to prevent the containers from accumulating too much moisture and rotting the bulbs.

If you are growing hyacinths in zone 9 or above, where winter temperatures stay above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, you will need to dig up your bulbs and chill them artificially before replanting. Store them in a mesh bag in a cool, dark spot that remains above freezing but below 45 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 weeks minimum.

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

All kinds of rodents will munch on hyacinth bulbs. You can give them some protection by throwing a handful of gravel into the planting hole, or you can try commercial rodent deterrents. An easier method is to interplant them with daffodils, which rodents tend to avoid.5

Few plant diseases affect hyacinths, but the bulbs can rot when planted in dense soil that doesn’t drain well.

Common Problems 

The hyacinth is a reliable plant that will give you several years of aromatic blooms, but occasionally there are unfortunate issues.

Spotted Foliage

If you’ve had a late frost after the foliage has appeared, hyacinth leaves can develop disfiguring spots. Sadly, there is not much you can do about it, but in some cases it will not affect the flower stalks that later appear.

Broken, Streaked Petals

Broken and streaked petals can be caused by the mosaic virus, which also can cause mottled leaves. Infected plants will need to be dug up and thrown away. Sterilize any tools you use to do this; they, too, can spread the disease.

Small Flowers

It is normal for hyacinths to bloom less robustly with every subsequent season. You can prolong their lifespan by regular feeding. Propagating new plants by dividing mature hyacinths can keep you in blooming plants almost indefinitely.

III. Uses and Benefits 

Hyacinths are primarily grown for their vibrant colors and strong fragrance. They are often used in borders, containers, and rock gardens. They also make excellent cut flowers that will perfume an entire room and are frequently forced indoors for winter blooms.

Common Hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis) Details

Common name Common Hyacinth, Dutch Hyacinths, Garden Hyacinth, Hyacinth
Botanical name Hyacinthus orientalis
Plant type Bulb
Hardiness zone 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
Growth rate Medium
Harvest time Summer
Height 0 ft. 8 in. - 1 ft. 0 in.
Width 0 ft. 8 in. - 1 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition High Organic Matter
Flower color Blue
Leaf color Green