Friday, July 20, 2012

Hyacinth. Hyacinthus orientalis

I am not sure whether to admit to having a real love for the sweetly perfumed hyacinth which are just coming into flower, given that they are now forever associated with the character created by veteran English actress Patricia Routledge, one Hyacinth Bucket (It's Boo-Kay dear) in the series Keeping Up Appearances. Every year in autumn I buy some different coloured varieties and pot them up, placing them in a cool shady spot while they put down roots and develop their flower spike. It is really too warm for them here as they need a temperature range of between 5 and 10 C to fully develop a flower spike of 30cm, however the strong perfume is there, even when just emerging from the soil and that is what counts for me.
Hyacinth originally came from the Middle East and were introduced to Europe around 1560 and it was Dutch nurserymen who did all the work on improving them over the centuries so that now they are more often known as Dutch Hyacinth or 'Florist's' type. The lovely primrose yellow cultivar 'City of Haarlem' which has received an 'AGM', award of garden merit from the RHS is named for the Netherlands city of Haarlem.
As they are quite formal looking plants, with the flower spike held stiffly erect, they have been often used in municipal plantings and spring display beds over the years. This aspect of their appearance was lampooned by English pop artist Sir Peter Blake when he set about to create a garden using Hyacinth for the record cover of the The Beatles, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band  when it was photographed at Chelsea Manor Studios in 1967. Hyacinth were used to spell out the name Beatles and, according to Blake, the nursery delivery boy made up a guitar using the flowers. It would be interesting to know whether the popular pink variety 'Princess Margaret' was included given that she was very much part of 'swinging London' of that time. The respectable municipal hyacinth were surrounded by Indian Gurus, Sri Paramahansa Yogananda, Sri Mahavatara Babaji etc, though record company EMI blocked out the image of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as it was possibly too sensitive to the British establishment.
Garden writers over the years are rarely kind about hyacinth. Louise Beebe Wilder in her book Adventures with Hardy Bulbs (1936, Macmillan, New York) describes them as 'obese, fat stalked, overstuffed, overscented and dedicated to pots or lozenge beds upon a suffering greensward'  Though 'when left in the ground for several years with no notice taken of them, until their starched pride is somewhat subdued, they acquire a slender grace and modesty that is most becoming to them'
More recently New York Times garden columnist Leslie Land waxed lyrical: Thinking of bulbs leads me to ask what you do about hyacinths? Got to be one of the ugliest flowers in all creation no matter where you put them or what you do with them, but then there is that perfume, without which there is no spring.'
Narcissus are very nice, (but) the scent of hyacinth is such as dreams are made on......

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