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Roman or French hyacinths ( H. o. albulus ) are less well-known but worth taking a look at; they are slightly smaller and bloom even earlier, with multiple stalks filled with white, pink or blue flowers. These are a good choice for warm-winter climates. And since both are easy to care for and relatively problem-free, you really can’t go wrong.
Caution: Hyacinth bulbs can cause an allergic reaction when handled, so wear gloves and wash hands after handling. The plants, particularly the bulbs, are also toxic to pets.
When browsing bulb offerings, you may also run across grape hyacinth, or Muscari spp. While it’s similar to common hyacinth in both name and looks, it is not related.
Botanical name: Hyacinthus orientalis
Common name: Garden hyacinth, common hyacinth
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean for Dutch hybrids; southern France for Roman hyacinths
Bloom season: Late winter to spring
Where it will grow: Hardy to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 40 degrees Celsius (USDA zones 3 to 9; find your zone ); best grown as an annual in regions with warmer winter climates
Mature size: 6 to 12 inches tall and 4 to 9 inches wide
Water requirement: Regular while growing and blooming
Light requirement: Full sun; can handle partial shade
Bulb type: True bulb
Benefits and tolerances: Extremely fragrant and showy, with brightly colored masses of blooms. Flowers bloom on single or multiple stalks rising from the plants’ bright green, strap-like leaves.
When to plant: In early fall in coldest regions; wait until late October or November in warm-winter regions. Keep bulbs cool or chill them until you plant. Choose the largest bulbs to get the largest “exhibition” blooms.
Fun fact: Hyacinths are one of the easiest bulbs to force for indoor blooms and fragrance in winter.
How to use it. Mass for a bright display; plant alongside or amidst other spring-blooming bulbs, such as daffodils and tulips ; let them naturalize in drifts or informal plantings; or grow them in containers . Hyacinths also make good cut flowers.
How to plant. Plant once the soil temperature reaches around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 degrees Celsius). Choose a site in full sun with sandy or loose, well-drained soil. Plant the largest bulbs 4 to 6 inches deep and 5 inches apart. Plant smaller bulbs 3 inches deep and 4 to 5 inches apart. Keep the soil moist but not soggy until winter rains start or snow covers the ground. Provide winter protection in zones 3 and 4.
Growing notes. Provide regular water during the growth and bloom periods, and until leaves start to turn yellow. Cut the flower stalks off once they fade, but leave the foliage in place until it turns completely yellow. Hyacinths can handle some summer water but prefer the soil to be dry. Begin watering again in fall, and provide regular water until winter rains start or snow falls. The tallest hyacinths may need to be staked or grown where taller plants can support them.
If you’re growing hyacinth as a perennial, feed with bulb fertilizer when blossoms fade. In zones 7 to 9, hyacinth bulbs will have the best repeat performances if you dig them up and chill them, then replant in fall. Or grow them as an annual.
Bulbs will rot if the soil is too soggy. They’re also tempting treats for rodents, so put up cages or scatter gravel to deter digging. Planting them with daffodils will help keep them from being nibbled upon, as rodents avoid toxic daffodil bulbs.
Growing in containers. Choose a container that’s 8 to 15 inches wide, depending on bulb size. You’ll want at least 2 inches of potting soil or another growing medium beneath the base of the bulbs. Set the bulbs with the tip close to the surface. For the best display, pack them in tightly rather than spacing as you would in the garden — the bulbs should be almost touching. Cover with mulch and keep the container cool and moist in a shaded spot until the top growth can be seen, then place in full sun to enjoy the display.