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