Sandy’s Garden ... Hyacinth

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I like the look of hyacinths and would happily have a colourful bowl of this fragrant flowering plant gracing my home.

My problem is with the fragrance of hyacinths, to which I seem to be allergic, particularly so as the flowers pass their peak. Their fragrance at this stage causes me to have prolonged bouts of sneezing which are no more pleasant for any companions than they are for me. So, although bowls of hyacinths are a popular spring gift, I’m afraid that any which come my way are doomed to enjoy a short stay in my home before I must consign them to the compost bin as a rule, for the bulbs which are produced for indoor decorative purposes do not, in my experience, do well outdoors.

The most widely-available species of hyacinth is Hyacinthus orientalis, otherwise known as the common hyacinth … for an obvious reason … the Dutch hyacinth … for an equally obvious reason … or the garden hyacinth … and, gentle reader, you may guess the reason for this. The reason for the second part of its botanical name … orientalis, meaning ‘of the east’ … is equally obvious when one knows that the genus Hyacinthus is considered native to the eastern Mediterranean including Turkey, Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and parts of Israel.” (Don’t let President Trump see this full list!) Hyacinths have also become widely naturalised and can be found growing wild nowadays in the Netherlands, France, Sardinia, Italy, Sicily, Croatia, all the countries of the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Greece and Cyprus in Europe, in the states of Pennsylvania, California and Texas in the United States as well as in central Mexico, Cuba and Haiti. And I would be surprised if this is an exhaustive list of the contemporary habitats of this widespread plant.

The generic name Hyacinthus comes from the Greek name of a plant whose flowers sprang up on the spot where a youth by the name of Hyacinth was accidentally killed by the God Apollo. According to the most popular version of the legend, Apollo, attracted by the young man’s great beauty, was teaching Hyacinthus the art of throwing the discus when Boreas … the god of winter … jealous of Apollo’s success with Hyacinthus, deflected the discus so that it struck the youth’s head, killing him instantly. (Some of these Greek legends would merit a PG certificate at the very least were they to be made into films!) Whatever, the plant which sprang up where the youth’s life-blood was spilled was named after him, although it seems likely that it was not actually the flower to which we give his name.

Although hyacinths are associated with renaissance … in common with many spring flowers … and although they are attractive to look at and most people find their strong fragrance attractive, they are not, in fact, the most pleasant of plants. Every bit of the hyacinth is poisonous if eaten and as simple a practice as handling the bulbs may well aggravate skin allergies. The reason for this is that the bulbs contain oxalic acid, which is a skin irritant. Readers with a knowledge of chemistry will know that prolonged contact with C2H2O4 … oxalic acid … is not advisable; and gardeners are recommended to wear gloves when they are handling the bulbs. Rather unexpectedly for a poisonous plant, slugs are fond of them, as are squirrels. The bulbs are also prone to a variety of problems in the garden, including frost injury, bulb mites, narcissus bulb fly, bulb nematodes, basal rot and mosaic virus. And even gardeners who avoid all these hazards successfully will find that the spectacular flowers of the bulbs’ first year in the garden are seldom replicated in subsequent years by virtue of the cunning of the bulb growers in preparing the bulbs for sale. That is particularly true of bulbs specially prepared for indoor display, which often disappoint if later replanted in the garden.