Mickey Rathbun: Learning to love hyacinths

Friday, May 04, 2018

I recently confessed to a gardening friend that I’ve never been a big fan of hyacinths planted out in the garden. “Me neither!” she said. “They look like cheap Woolworth’s flowers that somebody stuck in the ground.”

But we agreed that hyacinths have a divine fragrance. For that alone, I think, they are worth cultivating in the garden, so you can pick them and bring them inside where they can perfume the air.

Luckily for me, the South Amherst garden I inherited has a random sprinkling of white hyacinths in one corner that come back strong every spring, no matter how much disruptive digging I do around them over the summer. With a day of cold rain in the forecast this week, I cut a bunch of hyacinths and put them in a small, squat vase that holds them in a dense cluster. They are gorgeous to behold close up, with stalks of cheerful, almost translucent star-shaped flowers. Their fragrance is so pervasive that my husband asked me if I put something “floral” in the salad we ate for dinner that night.

Hyacinths got their name from the Greek myth of Hyakinthos, a beautiful young man who was a lover of the god Apollo. The story goes that Hyakinthos and Apollo were throwing a discus back and forth, and when Hyakinthos ran to catch the discus in an effort to impress Apollo, it hit him in the head and killed him. (Another confession: the image of Apollo and Hyakinthos tossing a discus around brings to mind fond memories of Ultimate Frisbee tournaments.)

A different version of the myth is that Zephyr, the god of the West Wind, was also in love with Hyakinthos. Jealous that the young man fancied Apollo, Zephyr blew the discus off course so that it struck him in the head and killed him. In any event, Apollo was so distraught that he banned Hades from claiming Hyakinthos’s soul and caused flowers to grow up from his blood.

Just to confuse things further, botanical scholars have concluded that the original flower identified by the ancient Greeks as a “hyacinth” is not the flower we know as “hyacinth.” It may have been a fritillary.

In any case, hyacinths are native to the eastern Mediterranean region. They are mentioned by Homer in the Iliad and by Roman poets Virgil and Ovid. Prized mostly for their scent, they were cultivated by Arabs and Turks throughout the Ottoman Empire as early as 1400.

A Flemish diplomat sent as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1554 is believed to have been responsible for sending hyacinths and other flowers, including tulips, back to Vienna and elsewhere in Western Europe. Botanists noted hyacinths appearing in Italy as early as 1562, in the Netherlands in 1568, and England in 1596. (For a full history of hyacinths, there’s a terrific article on the website oldhousegardens.com.)

While tulips were all the rage in Holland in the 17th century, hyacinths took their star turn in the 18th century. During this period, Dutch growers expanded the number of varieties of hyacinth from 50 or so to more than 2,000 in shades of red, blue, white, orange, pink, violet and yellow. The Netherlands continues to be the primary source for hyacinths.

Hyacinths were popular throughout Europe. Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, made sure that hyacinths filled Louis XV’s royal gardens, including those at Versailles. In winter, she forced several hundred in glass containers. Fashionable women wore hyacinths to decorate their low-cut dresses (and perhaps to mask body odor!)

In the Persian culture, hyacinths are often associated with spring and rebirth. The flower is used in the traditional Persian New Year celebration, the Nowruz, held at the Spring Equinox.

The hyacinths we typically grow, H. orientalis, are often known as Dutch or garden hyacinths. Muscari, or grape hyacinth, is not a member of the hyacinth genus, despite the name. Next fall I’m going to try interplanting hyacinths with drifts of daffodils and tulips for a different visual effect. If that doesn’t suit me, I’ll have more to cut and enjoy inside.

Exploring Lake Warner

This Sunday, 10 a.m. to noon, Hitchcock Center naturalist Ted Watt and Morse Hill Canoe Guides are offering a canoe exploration of Lake Warner in search of kingfishers, painted turtles, great blue herons, bullfrogs and more. The group will paddle slowly around the lake, looking for plants, birds and other wildlife. Bring binoculars, snacks and water, sun and bug protection. Canoes, paddles, life jackets and canoe instruction will be provided. Not recommended for paddlers younger than grade 4. Canoes and instruction will be supplied by Morse Hill, certified canoe instructors. The event is sponsored by Friends of Lake Warner. Registration required. Space is limited.

Members: $10/Nonmembers: $15.

Mother’s Day weekend sale at Wilder Hill

My idea of a perfect spring outing is a trip to Wilder Hill Gardens in Shelburne Falls. The drive up is spectacular, as are Lilian Jackman’s gardens and new garden shop. She offers a wide assortment of perennials, herbs, shrubs and trees that are well-suited to our New England climate. Wilder Hill also has a meditation path and Tibetan stone stupas, plus gorgeous views of the hills in their spring glory.

Bring along your dog for a Mother’s Day romp with Viola, Jackman’s farm dog. Wilder Hill is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be free garden tours at 1 p.m. both days. 351 South Shirkshire Road, Shelburne Falls, (413) 625-9446

Tulip mania

Speaking of Dutch flowers, on May 12, 1 to 2 p.m., Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston is hosting a lecture by James Welu, director emeritus of the Worcester Art Museum, on the 17th-century Dutch tulip craze. This madness led to what is often considered the first recorded speculative bubble. Welu will explain how this coveted flower, which is not native to the Netherlands, became a symbol of the Dutch Republic, providing valuable insight into the aspirations of a nation during its Golden Age.

Welu began his career as an artist and taught studio art in college before pursuing further studies in art history. A specialist in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art, Welu has published and lectured widely and organized a variety of exhibitions. Members: $5/nonmembers: $15. For more information and to register, go to: www.towerhillbg.org.

Landscape design intensive

Many of us gardening enthusiasts have pieced together our gardens over the years by trial and error, without the benefit of professional guidance. Wilder Hill Gardens is offering an intensive two-day workshop June 2 and 9, covering the basics of landscape design.

Lilian Jackman and Vivian Felten of Vivid Landscapes will illuminate important landscape design skills including site assessment, design and drafting techniques (no artistic skill required!), plant material and propagation, hardscape, and proper installation methods.

Bring photos, project ideas, and any maps along to the first class. Cost: $220. Pre-registration required. A materials list will be sent. Bring a bag lunch, tea and coffee provided.

For more information, call Lilian at (413)625-9446 or go to www.wilderhillgardens.com.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at mickey.rathbun@gmail.com.