Say what you like, the gods of Ancient Greece were out for a good time and weren’t afraid of the consequences. Take Zephyr, god of the west wind, and his pal Apollo. One day Apollo was teaching a handsome young man named Hyakinthos how to throw the discus. Everything was going well until Zephyr flew into a jealous rage and blew the discus back, dashing out the brains of the handsome young man and killing him. On the plus side, however, a beautiful flower immediately grew from his blood, and Apollo named it Hyacinth in his memory.
Hyacinthus orientalis ‘Blue Magic’, this deep purple variety allows a border shading from white to almost black to be developed
Hyacinths originated in the eastern Mediterranean, along the shores of Turkey, and were brought further west by the Greeks and Romans. Homer mentions hyacinths a lot. In the Odyssey, for example, his bestselling blockbuster novel of steadfast love and high courage, the hair of one of his protagonists is described as 'curls like thick hyacinth clusters in full bloom'.
Hyacinthus orientalis ‘Lady Derby’, a single, tightly-packed spike of vibrant pink and white.
More recently, Shelley, Rabbie Burns and even TS Eliot used the perfume or appearance of hyacinths to poetic effect, and who can forget the timeless Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping Up Appearances? She memorably insisted her husband kept two pairs of gardening gloves, one to do the actual gardening and a clean pair in case he needed to wave to anyone.
Which brings us to cultivating hyacinths, something we Europeans have been doing since Leonhardt Rauwolf; a German doctor, collected some specimen plants when he visited Turkey in 1573. In fact, hyacinths have been grown commercially pretty much ever since, and still are in Britain and the Netherlands, where they're also used as cut flowers.
Brown side down, green side up is useful advice when planting almost anything, but not hyacinth bulbs, where the rule is pointy end up. Hyacinth beds should be well dug and loosened to a depth of 1 ft or more, then a good layer of compost added before the bulbs are popped into individual holes 5-6 inches deep and 4-6 inches apart, covered over, pressed down firmly and well watered.
Do this in the autumn, a couple of months before the first frosts are due. About now, in fact. And consider a good, deep mulch in case the sort of badly-organised cold weather we've had for the last couple of years turns up again. Then wait for spring.
Hyacinths can bloom in March and April with a glorious display of reds, yellows, purples, blues, peaches, whites and more, and a fantastic, intoxicating, beguiling, wonderful scent that's at its very best on a still evening.
The smell is so glorious it has been used as perfume for centuries, though nowadays modern technology has come up with a synthetic chemical equivalent. I suspect Homer would not have been impressed.
Of course, the most impressive way to grow hyacinths is in tightly packed beds of hundreds of individual plants as we do with the National Hyacinth Collection, held at Ripley Castle in North Yorkshire.
Hyacinthus orientalis ‘Jan Bos’, a deep rose variety planted outside the nineteenth century hothouses at Ripley Castle
Our bulbs usually flower toward the end of April, depending on the weather: the perfume can be nearly overwhelming in the Walled Garden. And, as every gardener knows, there are always extra bulbs, which we plant in the woodlands for the Castle florists to use for weddings or other events.
The varieties in our formal beds do vary from year to year, but our pride and joy are the rarer and more historic varieties such as Grand Monarque, a gentle hyacinth with soft blue/white flowers shaded with purple and first introduced in 1863.
Then there's the superb Bismarck, a deep blue/violet variety with elongated trumpet-like flowers tightly clustered around the spike and introduced in 1875, and the wonderfully named Grace Darling. A vigorous and impressive late nineteenth century variety named in honour of the great Victorian heroine; the girl who took a small rowing boat out to sea to rescue survivors of the stricken Forfarshire when conditions were so rough she feared the nearby lifeboat couldn't get out.
All three of these heritage varieties, and many others, will be on display at Ripley in 2012.
Hyacinths? Little crackers!
Mike Ward is the business development manager at Ripley Castle.