Heirloom Bulbs & Garden History • So Much More Than New
Read More: Hyacinths
Meet Alan Shipp, the Hyacinth Master
With a collection of 243 hyacinth varieties dating back as far as the 1700s, our good friend Alan Shipp is an inspiring example of what one person can do to save our incredibly rich garden heritage.
Although we’ve been the sole US source for Alan’s hyacinths for many years, and we’re proud to call him a friend, we learned a lot we never knew about him in an engaging post at the British blog Spitalfields Life. Alan is a great story-teller with a jolly sense of humor, and the blog’s author captures him well.
Alan talks about how his family farm got its start when his grandfather won a pony in a raffle, how he learned how to propagate hyacinths from a slug, and how the “extinct” 1767 double white-with-red-eyes ‘Gloria Mundi’ was rediscovered in a tiny village in Romania.
As we celebrate my last year here at OHG, we’re going to be recycling a few nuggets from the past such as this sidebar from our 1995 catalog:
Hyacinths are the most endangered of historic garden bulbs, in part because too many gardeners still stereotype them as “formal” and “stiff.” May I suggest looking at them as “quaint” instead? As the great Philadelphia plantsman John C. Wister wrote in his classic Bulbs for Home Gardens of 1930:
“Few flowers have suffered more unjustly at the hands of the American gardening public – unjustly because they have been banned from countless gardens for no fault of their own, but on account of the revulsion of taste against the circles, half-moons, crescents, stars, and other atrocities that were cut in lawns in bygone days and filled with hyacinths.
“Big or little, white, pink, blue, or yellow, the hyacinth is a lovely flower when used with discretion or restraint. To condemn it for the bad company it kept generations ago is . . . narrow-minded . . . .
“Don’t be afraid of hyacinths. Try them and see how many different garden positions suit them. . . . But don’t be without this early and delightfully fragrant flower.”
“Bulbs want to grow.” That’s what we say here at Old House Gardens whenever we hear a story like this one sent to us recently by our good customer Anita Bischoff of Kings Park, NY:
“In January, I found one ‘Marie’ hyacinth bulb lying in my garage. I must have dropped it when I planted the other 24 last fall. I put it in a glass forcing vase and then into my wine fridge. When green sprouted from the top, I put it on a windowsill.
“It looked beautiful as it was growing and it bloomed just in time to win a FIRST prize at the Smithtown Garden Club meeting last week – so all was not lost for the leftover. Happy Easter!”
Although once the most popular bulb of all, hyacinths are rarely found in most gardens today. If you’re not growing them, you’re missing something special – as these fans will tell you:
Writing in Horticulture magazine, our good friend Marty Ross of zone-6a Kansas City, MO, tells of planting hyacinths “here and there in groups of three or five, almost like wildflowers. The soft pink ‘Lady Derby’, which has been around since 1875, is one of the prettiest, and it has persisted in my garden for years. I grow it among epimediums, hardy begonias, and a splashy variegated hosta; they hide the hyacinth foliage when it flops over in late spring.”
Double ‘General Kohler’ “keeps on multiplying,” our long-time customer Donna Mack writes us from zone-5b Elgin, Illinois. “Every year I have more, and the bulbs are huge. I think you’re right that they like being dry in summer. I have them planted among ornamental grasses – they’re lovely there when the grasses are cut down in spring – and that area has a low priority when it comes to watering. You should see them! Every spring more and more appear. This past spring, I must have had half a dozen new ones.”
And in Slow Flowers: Four Seasons of Locally Grown Bouquets, Debra Prinzing of zone-8b Seattle recommends making small, multi-colored bouquets of nothing but hyacinths. “A singular sensation – for the eye as well as the nose – hyacinths are so stunning that it’s hard to justify pairing them with any other flower. In fact, you really only need one hyacinth bulb, cupped in a special forcing glass, to experience the arrival of spring on your windowsill. . . . When I brought home a mixed bunch from the farmers’ market, they filled my car with a heady perfume.”
“What really is extinct?” our good friend Alan Shipp asks in the fall 2014 journal of Plant Heritage, the UK’s non-profit devoted to conserving garden plants. “The coelacanth was considered to be extinct,” he writes. “The ‘fossil pine’ was only known by its fossilized remains.” And then Alan tells of another exciting rediscovery.
Although originally considered inferior, double hyacinths came into vogue in the early 1700s after one breeder discovered a double white that had “red” petals in the center of each floret. “Eyed” hyacinths with other contrasting colors were soon developed, fueling a Hyacinth Mania in the 1730s – but, as Alan writes, “we considered all of these extinct many, many years ago.”
Recently, though, “a lady called Ingrid living in Switzerland had a lorry driver friend called Theo. Theo and a fellow driver took a lorry load of humanitarian aid to a remote little village in Romania where Theo’s friend met, courted, and eventually wed a local girl. Theo returned to the village for the marriage, and so splendid was the hospitality that Theo gave the bride’s father a pocket watch.” In return, the father invited Theo to “take anything he wished from the garden. Theo selected a hyacinth bulb labeled ‘Gloria Mundi’ and on his return to Switzerland gave the bulb to his gardener friend Ingrid.
“Very fortunately for the plant world, Ingrid passed it on to Alan Street of Avon Bulbs who [eventually] gave two small bulbs to me for the Hyacinth National Collection. . . . ‘Gloria Mundi’ was illustrated in 1767, and a pot of ten small bulbs in bloom was this spring awarded an RHS Certificate for Plants of Historic or Botanical Interest.
“Footnote: The garden in Romania has been located and visited this past April. The old man is dead and his son has dug up all flowers to grow vegetables. Saved just in the nick of time one might say!”
While we wait for Alan to increase ‘Gloria Mundi’ and share it with us, why not enjoy a few of our other fabulous hyacinths, both doubles and singles, which are all on sale now.
Rogue Voles Teach Cornell Scientist about Animal-Resistant Bulbs
When voles ate bulbs intended for a study on deer-resistance, Cornell University’s Bill Miller made the best of it. In the fall, Miller had potted up the bulbs and put them into cold storage. Unfortunately in spring he discovered that “during the winter, prairie voles had taken up residence in the stacks of crates and had eaten more than 35% of the bulbs. We found two large nests of voles, and the youngsters were quite happy, well fed, and growing fast from their nutritious meals. . . . Of course we were not happy with this, but we used it as an opportunity to learn some things about vole feeding and flower bulbs.” The voles’ favorite bulbs included tulips, crocus, Anemone blanda, and Chionodoxa luciliae, but they avoided those listed below. Deer would, too, Miller points out, since deer and voles are known to have similar tastes.
Hyacinths – “Bulbs were not attacked and shoots were perfect when uncovered. . . . From this we can conclude that hyacinths are pretty immune to attack from voles, and my own experience suggests that deer usually leave hyacinths alone.”
Daffodils – “Voles dug in about 10% of the pots but did not damage the bulb or emerging shoots” – and most gardeners know that daffodils are reliably deer-resistant.
Tulsa Garden Writer Swoons for “Spicy” ‘Madame Sophie’
Our good friend and long-time Tulsa garden writer Russell Studebaker emailed us a few months ago, agitated about a certain double white hyacinth we offer:
“I want to tell you how ticked off I was when I tried to order ‘Madame Sophie’ again from you last fall and you were sold out!
“I LOVE THAT HYACINTH. It has the most spicy and wonderful fragrance of any of the hyacinths that I have grown, and its flowers persisted and lasted so long for me. I cannot image why it has become so endangered and hard to find.
“Since you were sold out so early, I had to go on my search engine and after a great while I did get some out of England, at a premium price. But what the heck, things of beauty and quality are worth the extra cost. Please order more for this fall, and try to find additional growers for that superb hyacinth.”
Some might say it’s wrong to love a plant that much, but we’ve been there, and we understand. Could ‘Madame Sophie’ inspire such passion in your garden-heart? To find out, all you have to do is order a few for planting this fall.
“February and March are my favorite gardening months,” our good customer Carole Bolton wrote us last week – from snowed-in Coldwater, Michigan, where temperatures were well below freezing and the sun hadn’t been seen for days.
Had she lost her mind? Quite the contrary! For years now, Carole has been forcing hyacinths indoors every winter – lots of hyacinths – and this year’s “are especially beautiful,” she wrote. “They’re healthy, tall and fully flowered. They make the freezing rain and weather advisories bearable.”
In the Beginning: Double Hyacinths Go from Rejects to Super-Stars
As Heidi Klum says on Project Runway, “In fashion, one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out.”
But fashion cuts both ways, and what’s scorned or overlooked one day can become the coolest of cool. That’s what happened with double hyacinths which emerged from the compost pile to become, for much of the 18th and 19th centuries, the world’s most popular flower bulb.
The story of their origins is told in an 1897 article in The Gardeners Chronicle based the Marquis de Saint Simon’s exhaustive Des Jacintes, de leur Anatomie, Reproduction, et Culture of 1768:
“The first double variety was a seedling which appeared in the gardens of Peter Voorhelm . . . at Haarlem. At that time, the exact date is not certain but it was probably towards the latter part of the seventeenth century, all the bulb growers waged incessant warfare against all hyacinths raised from seeds or offshoots bearing flowers which in any way did not conform to the conventional notions of a perfect flower. The idea of a double variety does not appear to have entered even into the dreams of the Dutch [flower lovers].
“But (and the story reads almost like a page out of Dumas) Peter Voorhelm was taken ill, and could give no attention to his plants, and was unable to examine them until the hyacinths were beginning to die off. A flower of unusual form arrested his attention, and examination proved it to be a double hyacinth. It was very small, but he cultivated and multiplied it, and was soon able to place it on the market, whilst numerous amateur growers were found willing to pay high prices for the new bulb.
“The . . . first double hyacinth had a comparatively short life, for it was lost long before 1768. The two double varieties discovered subsequently were named, respectively, ‘Marie’ [not the single ‘Marie’ that we offer now] and the ‘Roi de la Grande Bretagne’. . . . The latter was raised about 1698, and was infinitely the finest of the first three varieties and over a thousand florins was paid for a single bulb.”
Gardeners in the 19th century loved forcing hyacinths in special vases for winter bloom. The practice dates back to the mid-1700s when Madame Pompadour, influential mistress of Louis XV, had hundreds of hyacinths forced in vases at Versailles.
Today, antique hyacinth glasses are collected worldwide. For a glimpse of the immense collection of Dutch enthusiast Wim Granneman – a few of which are pictured here – visit kennemerend.nl/bollenglazen.
Wim’s homespun site includes forcing-vase history, tips for finding them today, and even a section on crocus pots. Best of all is the “Vases Worldwide” section which features hundreds of Wim’s vases, old and new.