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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Planting Hyacinths Makes Scents

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: October 11, 2017

purple hyancinths

"What most people need is more fragrance in their life," is an observation often made by a former colleague. Although said in jest, the sentiment is plausible. The ability to smell is the most responsive of our five senses and the first to be developed as infants. Research has demonstrated that fragrances have the ability to change our mood, evoke memories and promote a sense of well-being. The latter can be attributed, in part, to the fact that stimuli to our olfactory sense are processed via our amygdala, that portion of our brain responsible for memory, decision-making and emotional reactions. Undoubtedly, fragrance is one reason that people are attracted to flowers.

Few other flowers pack the "fragrance punch" as hyacinth. This spring-flowering bulb with keel-shaped leaves and colorful, fragrant flowers is thought to be native to Turkey and the Middle East. Both Homer and Virgil made note of its sweet fragrance in their writings. Hyacinth was brought to Europe in the 16th century and, since then, has been greatly hybridized and vastly improved as an herbaceous ornamental flower. Today, it is available in many colors and bears much larger and fuller flower spikes than in days-of-old. Planting just a few can be very rewarding to the senses of both sight and smell.

October is an ideal month to plant hyacinths, whether they are destined to provide indoor fragrance in advance of the growing season or planted outdoors. In the case of the latter, the soil will remain warm enough this fall to allow a good root system to be established and the ensuing cold temperatures of winter will supply the chilling requirement needed for these bulbs to flower next spring.

Although bulbs of all sizes are readily available at this time of the year, larger bulbs are preferred. This, especially, is true if the bulbs are to be used for indoor forcing. Large, "exhibition size" bulbs, if available, are preferred for the latter process. By using pre-chilled bulbs, hyacinths can be flowered indoors as early as Christmas. Untreated (non-chilled) bulbs may easily be flowered indoors by Valentine's Day and throughout the late winter and early spring.

Bulbs destined for indoor flowering should be potted no later than mid-October, whether pre-chilled or untreated. When potting, add sufficient growing medium to allow only the tip of the bulbs to show above the soil line. After potting, bulbs should be placed in a protected location in the shade to allow roots to develop. Bulbs planted in hyacinth glasses should also be placed in a cool room until roots form. Hyacinth glasses are special containers that hold the bulb so that the base of the bulb barely touches the water held by the glass.

After the bulbs have rooted in pots or in glasses, chilling for eight to 10 weeks is required if flowering is to take place. Outdoors, normal winter temperatures satisfy this requirement. Pots destined for indoor flowering may be placed outdoors but should be mulched to protect the bulbs from excessively cold weather. Indoors the pots (or glasses) should be placed in a cold place or location where the temperature constantly is near 40 degrees F. An unheated basement or storage cellar is a good choice, because temperatures don't fluctuate greatly and the cooling is quicker and more satisfactory. An old refrigerator may be used for just a few bulbs; make certain there are no food products in the refrigerator when it is being used to chill bulbs.

By mid-to-late January, the pots may be moved from their chilling location to the area in the house where they are to be displayed. Avoid placing them in full sunlight or close to a heater. The life of the flowers can be lengthened by placing the plants in a cool room at night. Flowering usually occurs in three to four weeks, depending upon temperature.

For flowers and fragrance from hyacinths outdoors, nature will take care of most of the details. Plant bulbs in a well-drained site, since poor drainage is a leading cause of bulb rot. Heavier soils benefit from the incorporation of organic matter before planting. Bulbs should be planted about five inches deep (top of soil to base of bulb). The cold temperatures of the winter months will satisfy the chilling requirement of the bulbs.

Hyacinths often are in full bloom in central Missouri by late March. Abnormally cold winters or late early springs will delay the process. Because they are very sensitive to spring temperatures, planting site greatly influences hyacinths bloom date. In relation to other spring-flowering bulbs, hyacinths usually bloom alongside mid-season narcissus and early types of tulips.

Some of the more popular varieties for indoor forcing include City of Harlem, Delft Blue, L'Innocence, Ostara and Pink Pearl. However, do not be afraid to attempt to force any variety you might have on hand. Outdoors, the color choice is a full range from shades of blue and pink to the more unusual creamy yellows and salmon-orange shades. Used in masses of single or mixed colors, hyacinths planted now will ensure a fragrant spring for gardeners.

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REVISED: February 21, 2017