Plant of the Month: Hyacinth

Between August and October 2021, many trade magazines and blogs were full of news about a shortage of Dutch flower bulbs in the US. A limited supply of autumn bulbs grown in the Netherlands could, an article warned, prevent home gardeners in the northern hemisphere from being able to buy tulips, daffodils and other garden ornamental plants that had to be planted in the fall in order to grow in spring bloom.

According to a press release, several factors have contributed to this unprecedented shortage. A huge growth in interest in home gardening in recent years, amplified since the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in high demand for flower bulbs, outpacing low supply as weather-related problems in Holland reduced the annual harvest. To make matters worse, many companies operating under pandemic restrictions are processing fewer onions than usual, while a global shortage of shipping containers is delaying delivery of the ones that are available.

By and large, coverage of the Dutch flower bulb shortage focused on the tulip, but many other garden flowers were in limited supply. One in particular has a rich history that holds special significance today. This plant is the garden hyacinth, Hyacinthus orientalis.

[Methods of forcing hyacinth bulbs], Bar. in George Voorhelm, Traité sur la jacinte, Haarlem, 1773. Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Source / BnF.

Hyacinthus orientalis is a garden ornamental plant notable for its columnar spike of waxy flowers. However, much of the history of the hyacinth actually revolves around its bulb. The reconstruction of this narrative shows how the hyacinth bulb contributed to the plant’s survival in its native range for millennia, enabled its mobility in the trade networks of the Ottoman Empire, and culminated in its use for indoor flowering at the French court from the mid-1740s . Today, this story can also raise awareness of the environmental impact of the Dutch flower bulb trade and the need for sustainable solutions in the modern flower garden.

Hyacinthus orientalis, 1649–59, Hans Simon Holtzbecker, formerly attributed to Maria Sibylla Merian, gouache, 505 × 385 mm, from the Gottorfer Codex. National Gallery of Denmark.

This stunning image above of three garden hyacinths provides an apt introduction to the plant, from flowers to roots. Significantly, the artist carefully defined the irregular spherical bulbs of the hyacinths with bronze papery tunics. Coated onions are fleshy stalks that store nutrients that are absorbed by the plant during its growth stages. Once the plant enters the dormant phase, which coincides with the arrival of wintry weather conditions, the bulb provides enough water and energy for the plant to survive until spring, when warm temperatures and more concentrated sunlight will encourage and fuel the plant again.

Bulb adaptations allowed the hyacinth to survive despite the short growing season in its eastern Mediterranean homeland, and this proved invaluable to humans. Traders active in Istanbul between the 1500s and the mid-1800s thrived by selling easily transported flower bulbs through inter- and trans-regional trade networks, an economic study explains. In the Ottoman Empire, the hyacinth had a special status due to its centuries-long cultivation, just like tulips, carnations and roses. While true Ottoman hyacinths no longer survive today, their once vibrant cultural presence is immortalized in the floral motifs that adorn such objects as this Iznik jar below.

Jug (Hanap) with Tulips, Hyacinths, Roses and Carnations, late 16th c., Turkey, Iznik, Fritware with underglaze painting in blue, turquoise, red and black, 19.6 × 15 × 10.5 cm. Art Institute of Chicago.

The easy transportation of hyacinth bulbs enabled their migration, along with other ornamental bulbs, from the Ottoman Empire to Europe between the 1550s and 1610s. Numerous historical sources document the introduction of the plant to Europe, including Rembert Dodoens’ 1569 Florum, et coronariarumwith a hand-colored image by Hyacinthus orientalis. Such early arrivals would have had few flowers resembling the delicate plant shown in a botanical illustration by German amateur artist Magdalena Rosina Funck. However, the double-flowered hyacinth began to gain attention in Bavaria as early as 1612, and its varieties were seriously cultivated in Haarlem from the 1680s.

Magdalena Rosina Funck, Hyacinth, from Blumenbuch (“Book of Flowers”), 1692. Rare Book Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

The ease of getting hyacinth bulbs to bloom indoors helped spark a mania for the plant in 18th-century France. In the mid-1740s, Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, popularized the process of flowering bulbs at the French court. It was also probably Madame de Pompadour who first instructed the French Royal Porcelain Manufactory of Sèvres to start producing onion pots for the hustle. While one can force hyacinth bulbs by planting them in a glass vase over water or in a pot of soil as this illustration shows, using glass offers twice the pleasure of watching the plant grow a bud head and roots.

Getting hyacinth bulbs to bloom before spring arrives can only be done once, as the process depletes the plant’s energy stores. And the bulb, if reused in the garden, will likely stop producing flowers for several years. The rhythm of the bulb’s life cycle and the scarcity of the Dutch bulb in autumn 2021 raise questions about the sustainability and wider environmental impact of the global flower bulb trade. Student researchers at Leiden University highlighted this issue in their 2021 report, highlighting the trade’s reliance on “chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers…leading to soil degradation, water pollution and biodiversity loss” and urging the need for sustainable alternatives.

By telling the stories of alluring ornamental plants such as Hyacinthus orientalisthe Plant Humanities Initiative sheds new light on their extraordinary importance for human societies and cultures, while raising awareness of profound sustainability issues and the need for innovative responses to the current environmental crisis.

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By: John H Harvey

Garden History, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Autumn 1976), pp. 21-42

The Garden Trust

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