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Hyacinths in the Woods

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For that full fluffy look, garden books caution, hyacinths need to be replaced every five years. Myself, I think hyacinths are just getting good after five years. They get the way I like my jeans: worn in, graceful, softer: more comfortable in the woods.

I can’t help wondering if I’m supposed to admire those fat, flower-stuffed hyacinths because they’re more productive, more more more: they did get developed in approximately the same age as colonialism, and reached their heights in the U.S.  in the prime of our industrial age, the late 1800s and early 1900s. A time when “more more more” was certainly the cry of the land, if that cry has ever faded, and too bad about what happens in the context of all that production.*

To me, hyacinths fit the landscape much better (even in pots) when they fine down; instead of stiff fat spires suggesting civic plantings, they turn into newly-introduced woodland creatures. As an extra bonus, none of the other woodland creatures has ever eaten my hyacinths.

Once hyacinths get to the point of pleasant woodsiness, they seem to stay there. At least the older varieties like my pink ‘Lady Derby’ do.  I’ve had them for over ten years, mostly in containers, and they just keep coming back.

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L’Innocence, another heirloom hyacinth,  is beautiful, I think, even when it’s fined down to this:

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Some of my white L’Innocence have kept a heavier supply of their white curlicues, perhaps the ones that get more sun? You can see some of them in the picture at the top of this post.

Festival (sometimes called Festiva) hyacinths have that sparsely woodsy look from the get-go. They’re designed that way, worthy heirs of the old Roman hyacinths which had the same form, several small spikes curving gracefully. (They’re also called multi-flowered hyacinth.)

You can find true Roman hyacinths at Old House Gardens, specializers in heirloom bulbs. While they’re not cheap, Roman hyacinths are meant to go on indefinitely, blooming year after year and even spreading. Modest flowers often do last longer, I’ve noticed. Probably because they’re nearer the species types and further from ones that are bred for professional flower growers, who tend to be geared toward a big one-time show instead of  steady stamina in the garden.

I haven’t invested in Roman hyacinths yet, mainly because I’m happy with my White Festivals, which I’ve neglected shamefully; I put them in the ground near the door, and basically ignored them since then. I don’t even think they got the fertilizer I usually give to my bulbs, since they were not in a spot where other bulbs were. I often neglected to fertilize them in spring for that reason, and of course by fall I have only the vaguest notion of where they are.

But even neglected, they fine down beautifully. To me, this hyacinth looks very like some of the native woodland bulbs we have here: small, unassuming, beautiful. It fits into the landscape almost seamlessly. And this is important to me. I’m not a purist, but if my writing could do what I want it to do, it would remind us all to look up from the garden plans occasionally, look at the bigger world we’re gardening in, and see how we can enter into conversation with it.

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*such as grinding poverty, child labor, dangerous work conditions with no health care or insurance, open-pit mines, clearcutting, incredible amounts of pollution, and the general ascendancy of money over kindness, thoughtfulness, and community connections. Sadly, these are both old customs and part of the modern work ethic, but they became institutionalized in the slave workforces of monocropping colonialism, and the social upheaval of early industrialism.

{ 15 comments… add one }

  • RainGardener April 9, 2009, 3:58 pm

    Beautiful pictures. If those aren’t fertilized I can’t imagine they could look any better with some. Gorgeous!

  • tina April 9, 2009, 4:49 pm

    I like mine ‘fined’ down too and do think they fit in the garden better. But the full ones really make you look too. I can just imagine the wonderful smell.

  • michelle April 9, 2009, 5:23 pm

    Great post. I was just photographing white woodland hyacinths today. They are so lovely yet simple.

  • Racquel April 9, 2009, 5:27 pm

    I have a few in my own garden that have been there for years too & I like the fined down look too. :)

  • Pomona Belvedere April 9, 2009, 6:04 pm

    Nice to know there are more appreciators of fined-down hyacinths! I agree I can enjoy the fat ones, too, but I like them best when they get this way. And either way, the smell is indeed heavenly. (I even take hyacinths into the house; some people think the smell is too heavy, but I like to appreciate it fully while it’s there.)

  • Pomona Belvedere April 9, 2009, 6:17 pm

    P.S. Michelle, I just went over to your blog to see if any of your woodland hyacinth photos were up yet. I was just thinking again this spring that, much as I love color, there’s something about the white hyacinths that just does it for me. You’re right: lovely and simple.

  • Karen - An Artist's Garden April 10, 2009, 1:22 am

    Nice, I could come to appreciate hyacinths if they were grown like this – it seems they look more natural
    K

  • Daffodil Planter April 10, 2009, 5:28 pm

    Lovely, Pomona! Fat hyacinths look fake to me; I’ll try planting some on your “five year plan”.

    As for your footnote–c’mon, tell us what you REALLY think.

  • Pomona Belvedere April 11, 2009, 1:13 pm

    DP – Nah, I’m too reserved.

  • cyd April 11, 2009, 5:43 pm

    Hi Pomona, really great pictures. I love the fined down hyacinths, also. I force them in vases every fall and then plant them outside. They come back every year and they just smell so great.

  • Pomona Belvedere April 12, 2009, 1:15 pm

    Cyd, I’m impressed, I’ve never been able to get hyacinths to force before the ones outside bloom. And I love the idea of planting them out after you force them; I hate bulb waste!

  • cyd April 13, 2009, 7:37 am

    Hi again, I collect vases and I love the ones for hyacinths, I have ten, shameful I know. I buy the bulbs in Oct. and put them in the fridge for 2 weeks then I put them in the vases in a dark cool place. I take them out in Jan. its so empty after all the Christmas stuff. They are usually blooming for Valentines. They make good gifts too.

  • Pomona Belvedere April 13, 2009, 10:16 pm

    Sounds wonderful. Maybe your description of how you force will get me to try it again, and see if I can get anything besides late blooms (after the ones outdoors) or moldy bulbs. I bet it is very cheering to have ten of them blooming indoors in January, you’d be very generous to give any of them away.

  • Pam May 2, 2009, 4:14 pm

    This post made me smile – I have a small ‘patch’ of older hyacinths, and prefer them too to the fuller ones. Each year I think ‘perhaps I should plant some new ones’ and then I never do. I suppose that I really don’t want too!

    I generally don’t force them indoors – but agree with Cyd’s comment above: the vases for forcing hyacinths can be quite beautiful. They’re worth collecting a few.

  • Pomona Belvedere May 2, 2009, 7:13 pm

    Perhaps we can all start a ‘refined hyacinth’ movement. Although that sounds a little like something where you’d have to wear white gloves, and I don’t think any gardener would do that. I certainly wouldn’t.

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