The Hyacinth Story, by Frederick Doerflinger
from Adsurgens, the journal of Wycliffe Hall Botanical Gardens, 1989

(We were so impressed with this short history of hyacinths that we secured permission to reprint it online so it wouldn’t languish in obscurity. We’ve edited it a bit for clarity’s sake. Thanks to our good friend Alan Shipp of the British National Collection of Hyacinths who first shared it with us.)

In the Beginning: Wild Hyacinths and Roman Hyacinths

. . . . The name “hyacinth” itself can be traced back to remote antiquity, a relict of a non-Greek language, sometimes called Thracopelasgian, spoken some 4,000 years ago. It is apparently connected with the blue color of water, indicating a reference to the true species, Hyacinthus orientalis, which possessed a blue flower, the plant later developing bud variations of white and pale mauve to deep mauve-purple.

The parent of the present day garden or “Dutch” hyacinth was prevalent in ancient times as a wild flower in a number of areas of the eastern Mediterranean, through Asia Minor and Syria into Iran and Iraq. . . .

The wild species that occurs . . . [from sea level] up to 2,000 meters is a delightful if delicate but generally very hardy plant which can reach up to 30 to 40 cm in height with a loosely spaced raceme of 2-15 very fragrant pale to mid-blue or rarely white flowers in April-May. Each is about 0.5-2.5cm long and bell, funnel or urn-shaped with the upper half of the perianth segments spreading out flat in a star-like form.

Other orientalis varieties or forms have been described ever since the sixteenth century to the present day, but the only forms of H. orientalis appearing in the current (1989) Classified List and International Register of Hyacinths compiled by the Royal General Bulbgrowers’ Association is the species itself and H. orientalis albulus, an early flowering strain native to the South of France with a white flower on a small slender spike and the vernacular name of “Roman hyacinth.”

The dainty multi-flowering Roman hyacinths which until quite recently were widely offered in white, pink, and blue for early Christmas bloom indoors were, indeed, derived from H. orientalis albulus and had nothing to do with the greenish-flowered H. romanus, now correctly Bellevalia romana. Roman hyacinths are, however, now very difficult to find for they have been superseded by a somewhat more showy multiflora or “Fairy” type. These were derived, initially, by George van Veld of Lisse, some 50 years ago by crossing Roman hyacinths with single garden varieties to obtain early flowering varieties with larger-scale flowers in a wider color range. . . .

It was Hyacinthus orientalis which gave rise to the superb range of florists’ hyacinths or garden varieties through a lengthy process of selection and cross-breeding, no other species having been involved. The breeding history of the cultivated hyacinth goes back more than 400 years, all cultivars stemming from a single species and probably from only one or a few accessions of this species. Breeders selected for larger flower size and different flower color and were also influenced by fashion. Garden varieties have increased enormously in stature, becoming waxy, fat, and stout, but fortunately have retained the sweet scent if not much of the grace of the wild species. Double as distinct from single cultivars have enjoyed several periods of popularity, but in recent times breeding has tended to concentrate on single varieties to produce even more massive spikes and clearer and stronger colors.

On rare occasions sporting does occur and a mutation of a variety worthy of cultivation will appear. It may change from a single to a double as happened with ‘Hollyhock’, a sport of ‘Tubergen’s Scarlet’ (1920) itself a sport of the single ‘Distinction’ (1880), . . . or it may change its color completely. . . .

Hyacinths in the Ancient World and Ottoman Empire

[Hyacinths were] first mentioned by that great epic poet of Greece, Homer, in the Iliad (ascribed to some date between the 10th and 8th centuries BC) as being among the flowers which formed the couch of Hera, queen of heaven and earth. It was also botanically listed by the Greek philosopher-naturalist, Theophrastus (372-287 BCE). . . .

Hyacinthus was assuredly known to the Greek physician, Dioscorides, writing in the first century AD. . . . There is no confirmation that the Romans brought them home from the Middle East to grow them for their scent, but certainly both Virgil and Ovid referred to them in the context of the calendar, festivals and/or mythology.

Science waned in Europe during the Dark Ages but continued to flourish amongst the Arabs and it was through them that later many of the most ornamental bulbs, including the hyacinth, were introduced to Western Europe. The formidable Mohammed II, who conquered Constantinople in 1453, and Suleiman the Magnificent, who reigned ostentatiously during the hey-day of the Ottoman Empire from 1520-1566, were both devoted to gardens, and hyacinths, tulips, and many other bulbs were extensively cultivated.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Flemish diplomat sent by the Emperor Ferdinand I as ambassador to Suleiman in 1554 and credited with dispatching the first tulips into Western Europe, also described hyacinths and other bulbs and exotic plants as well as “tulipam” growing in the gardens of Adrianople and Constantinople. It is inconceivable that he did not include the hyacinth in the many consignments of seeds and bulbs he sent back to Vienna and to botanist friends elsewhere, and it is perfectly comprehensible that the wide excitement fanned by the flamboyant tulip overshadowed the advent and development of other important plants. There is convincing evidence that the hyacinth was cultivated by the Turks for both its fragrance and for ceremonial usage. On the death of Sultan Moerad III in 1595 his mourning son had no fewer than half a million hyacinths planted.

Hyacinths Come to the Netherlands and England

It is with Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), celebrated Curator of the botanical gardens at Leiden, that serious cultivation of bulbs in Western Europe began, and through him that Holland became the commercial bulb-growing center of the world. Clusius, a Flemish botanist sometimes known as Charles de l’Ecluse, studied botany at Montpellier from 1551-54 and moved about extensively before assuming his Leiden post. It was after a long plant-collecting expedition to Spain and Portugal in 1565 that he became interested in garden plants, especially bulbs. He was working with bulbs from Busbecq while Prefect of the Royal Medicinal Garden in Prague well before he arrived in Vienna in 1573 to assume duties at the Imperial Gardens there, but his records are neither specific or complete. The hyacinth is not mentioned then nor, indeed on his arrival in Vienna when he mentions only receiving “a large quantity of tulip and other seeds and bulbs” from Busbecq in 1573.

A fellow Flemish botanist, Mathias de l’Obel (1538-1616) observed Hyacinthus orientalis in flower in 1562 in Padua, Italy, where Western Europe’s first botanical garden had been established in 1545. Later, in his Kruydtboeck of 1581, he published the first illustration of H. orientalis albulus (syn. brumalis). It was Rembert Dodoens (Dodonaeus,1517-1585), renowned Flemish royal physician and herbalist — whose books, the first published in Mechelen in 1554, are important sources for tracing the history of many decorative plants — who was responsible for the first illustrations of H. orientalis in his Florum et . . . Historia (1568). This was about the time that the hyacinth arrived in Holland. There was no mention of the hyacinth in England until 1596 when the noted English herbalist, John Gerard, recorded growing them in his garden.

Increasing Numbers, Colors, and the Rise of Doubles

The Botanical Gardens at Leiden catalogued only a few hyacinth varieties in 1600. In his Rarorium Plantarum Historia (1601), Clusius belatedly illustrated a number of H. orientalis varieties as well as an unnamed seedling carrying significantly more flowers than the others, evidently the result of natural pollination. In Hortus Floridus (1614) Crispin van de Pas (Passaeus) also illustrated H. orientalis and three of its forms with 8-12 florets; a blue, a pale purple and a semi-double white with green stripes on the back of each petal.

Double hyacinths were not reported, in fact, before 1612 when B. Besler (1561-1620), noted for his unique folios on the Bishop of Eichstadt’s gardens, illustrated two double forms, including H. orientalis flore pleno with three neat and symmetrical double florets in his Hortus Eystettensis. D. Rabel’s Theatrum Florae (1628) illustrated blue and white single forms and a double described as violaceus. A year later Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris displayed six single and double varieties with from 6-13 florets, their colors described as pure white, blue, and red. As late as 1686 the Leiden Botanical Gardens enumerated only 35 white, blue, mauve, and red varieties, with single and double flowers.

With the Dutch so preoccupied with tulips in the early part of the seventeenth century, few breeders took an interest in hyacinths and these preferred single hyacinths, working to achieve similarity and symmetry of flowers on the spike and purity of colors. It was not until 1670 that any named varieties were mentioned; just half a dozen by Van der Groen in the Nederlandse Hovenier. These included ‘Bultanaer’, ‘Passetout’, ‘Celestine’ and ‘Witte van Katolijn’ but were not further described. By 1684 Haarlem “florist” Peter Voorhelm had, however, begun work on developing double-flowering hyacinths. In 1702 his ‘Konig van Groot-Brittanje’ (named after William III) scored great success. It fetched exceptionally high prices and was still in cultivation 70 years later. (Learn more about the origins of double hyacinths.)

The precise source of double hyacinths has never been established but Peter Voorhelm’s achievement certainly spurred others, not least his descendants, to develop more new varieties, which, in turn, challenged and subsequently replaced the primacy of the tulip. By the 1730s a “wind trade” in hyacinths similar to that of “Tulipmania” nearly a century earlier threatened and, although fortunately short-lived, nevertheless contributed to the prominence of hyacinths which lasted through both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

It was Peter Voorhelm’s notable grandson, George (1712-1787), who published A Treatise on the Hyacinth in a number of languages in 1753, which was in effect a catalog but with cultural instructions, listing 244 double and 107 single best named varieties offered by his Haarlem firm of “florists and seedsmen.” Among them were 150 double blues, which included purples, but only half that number of single varieties of the same color. With regard to white and red varieties there were about three times as many doubles as singles. (Yellow hyacinths came later, sometime between 1760 and 1770, and were not listed until a later edition of Voorhelm’s treatise. There is no contemporary reference, however, as to how they originated or by whom they were raised.)

High Fashion and Winter Blooms — Hyacinths at the French Court

Fashion helped promote hyacinths, too, for Madame de Pompadour, who held sway between 1745 and 1760, was a keen devotee of these fragrant blooms, ensuring that Louis XV effected extensive hyacinth plantings in his various palace gardens. It is also recorded that in 1759 Madame had no less than 200 hyacinths grown “on glasses” during the winter as well, and she was a lady who had imitators everywhere. These were golden days for the Voorhelms, the Van Kampens, the Schertzers, the Krepses, and other Haarlem florists. Bulb flowers in great quantities were used not only for decorating the great halls of palaces but also the attire of ladies who wished to embellish their plunging necklines with the gorgeous and costly blooms of the latest novelties in hyacinths and tulips.

The Marquis de Sainte Simone, a friend of George Voorhelm, published the first serious study of the anatomy, reproduction, and culture of the hyacinth under the title Des Jacinthes in 1768, a veritable mine of illustrated information and a fascinating insight into their development.

In striking contrast, many eighteenth century pharmacists included bulbs in their product range and the hyacinth was, in fact, nicknamed “the scourge of the Arabs.” Its juice, mixed with half a glass of wine, was sold as a remedy for retarding beard growth.

From about fifty varieties in the early part of the eighteenth century the number soon rose to nearly 2000 and, to quote the English Curtis’ Botanical Magazine in 1806, “with double and semi-double, with white, red, blue, and yellow flowers, in scent without end. . . . Acres are employed in the environs of Haarlem for the cultivation of these flowers; from thence we receive annually the best bulbs.”

Bedding, Forcing, and the Return of Singles

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars completely changed the economic and social structure of Europe and the market for hyacinths. Single varieties also began to overtake doubles in popularity as the general public gradually took to growing single hyacinths in the winter. And although from the 1850s to the early years of this century many double varieties remained available, single varieties became the choice for bedding, not least in Victorian England where “Grand Hyacinth and Spring Flower Shows” were much in vogue. The catalogs of the period began to quote prices for bulbs in hundred lots, reflecting the larger purchases, wider applications, and lower prices.

Holland, and the Haarlem area in particular, had become established as a “second home” for hyacinths in the West, but by 1826 Berlin began to import substantial quantities of hyacinth bulbs from Holland to apparently build a rival industry (which also included tulips and several other bulbs).

By 1842 one grower, F. Muemes Dietrich, had upwards of two million hyacinth bulbs in the ground, and with a list of 359 varieties was exporting to Prussia, Poland, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, and France. Many others began to grow and, indeed, breed hyacinths and by 1866 some 25 acres of Berlin was devoted to them with, at one point, 1,500,000 exported to Holland! But by the turn of the century it was all over, with Berlin rapidly expanding and the land occupied by flowers used for building.

After 400 Years . . .

The patterns of demand for and fluctuating prices of the various hyacinth varieties over the centuries is a fascinating story in itself but scarcely lends itself to summary. And the many advances made during the current century alone in the cultivation, production, treatment, and, not least, in the disease-control of hyacinths is most impressive. The hyacinth is, after more than 400 years, a superb, a distinctive, and a rewarding product for the home and garden. . . .

The current (1989) List and International Register of Hyacinths compiled by the Royal General Bulbgrowers’ Association of Hillegom, Holland, includes 183 single and sixteen double varieties of which just 56 single and four double are in commercial production at present.

In practical terms the ordinary gardener has access today to about three dozen varieties through mail order or from the larger horticultural retailers. What is surprising is that nearly half of these are old cultivars that have retained their popularity for the better part of a century of more.

More About the Origins of Double Hyacinths

In the late 1600s, double hyacinths emerged from the compost pile to become, for much of the 18th and 19th centuries, the world’s most popular 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.”