How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Grape Hyacinth
Thinking of planting grape hyacinth in your garden, or around your home? This beautiful flowering plant can be something different and unique, that's not commonly seen amongst gardens around the globe. In this article, gardening expert Madison Moulton examines how to plant, grow, and care for grape hyacinth.
The draping bulbs of grape hyacinth are sure to create a stunning spring spectacle, no matter where they’re planted. While not related to true hyacinths – a flowering garden staple – grape hyacinth still deserves a spot in your landscape. They get their unique name from their pretty blooms that look like a cluster of grapes mixed with tiny hyacinths. Their blooms are small, but they come in a variety of colors that brighten any space.
Grape hyacinths have a lot more going for them than just their looks. They’re extremely low maintenance, cold-hardy, and naturalize quickly, allowing them to be planted in a variety of ways. They make striking additions to beds and containers, perfect for cottage gardens. These unique bulbs also add a pretty twist in meadow and woodland gardens, as well as non-traditional urbanized spaces.
There are more than 40 species of grape hyacinth, each with its own unique quirks and colors. Though blue is the most common color, some varieties come in different shades of purple and pink, while others are bright yellow and even white. The most traditional grape hyacinth is the Muscari aucheri ‘Blue Magic,’ which of course has striking grape-blue flowers.
Grape Hyacinth Plant Overview
Plant Type Bulbus Perennial
Species Muscari spp.
Native Area Middle East
Hardiness Zone USDA 3-11
Exposure Full Sun to Partial Shade
Maturity Date 4 Years Seed, 2 Years Bulbs
Growth Rate Moderate
Plant Spacing 3 inches
Planting Depth 3 inches
Height 6-12 inches
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests Aphids and Spider Mites
Diseases Yellow Mosaic Virus
Soil Type Moist, Well-draining
Attracts Bees and Butterflies
Plant With Tulips and Other Bulbs
Don’t Plant With Heat loving plants
Plant History and Cultivation
Grape hyacinth belongs to the Muscari genus, which is part of the asparagus (Asparagaceae) family. Muscari is a Greek word meaning ‘musk’ which refers to the flower’s delicious fragrance. Grape hyacinths are native to the Middle East and the Mediterranean and made their way across Europe throughout the 13th century. They became increasingly popular in the 1500s, and by the middle of the century, they were commercially cultivated. By this time, these bulbed flowers had reached the Americas, too.
Despite this relatively long history, grape hyacinth’s popularity dates back much further. Archeologists in Iraq found evidence of them amongst many other types of flowers at a burial site dated back almost 50,000 years.
Today, they are still used for display purposes, mainly in spring gardens. They’re known for their striking appearance in the ‘Blue River’ display at the Keukenhof Gardens in Holland. But these flowers don’t need to be planted in a world-renowned spring garden to be appreciated. They still make quite the spectacle when planted in small groups in home gardens.
In the Mediterranean, many species star in both gardens and kitchens. The bulbs, flowers, and buds of some varieties are particularly popular in dishes from Crete and southern Italy. Some species’ bulbs are often boiled, pickled, and used as a substitute for onion. Others add a nutty flavor to dishes when they’re pickled in vinegar.
Part of Grape Hyacinth’s allure is their self-seeding nature and ability to naturalize easily. While this is great, many gardeners opt to propagate their plants to quickly increase their stock. Propagation is also a great way to share your favorite plants with friends and family at no cost. Luckily, there are two easy ways to propagate them – from seed or by dividing the bulbs.
Propagation From Seed
The best time to propagate from seed is in summer, once the seed pods have dried out. Harvest any seeds from these pods and place them on a moist paper towel. Place the towel and seeds in a plastic bag and pop them in the refrigerator. The refrigerator replicates the cold conditions the seeds would normally experience in the wild, in a process known as stratification.
The seeds should germinate within two to three months. Once they’ve begun to sprout, you can plant them directly in your garden. Alternatively, you can plant your young grape hyacinths in containers until they’re large enough to be transplanted. Use a high-quality potting mix and only transplant once the threat of frost has cleared.
Propagation by Division
Grape hyacinths propagated from seeds can take as long as three years to produce flowers. Bulb-divided plants, on the other hand, produce these sought-after blooms the following flowering season.
It is best to divide them during their dormancy in late spring or early fall. Gently dig up clusters and separate the offsets from the larger bulbs. You can water your plants before you dig them up to make both the soil and clusters softer.
The largest bulbs will produce flowering plants within the first year, while smaller ones may take a year or two to establish themselves.
Once the bulbs have been separated, dig a wide, but shallow planting hole and enrich the soil with some organic matter. You can also add some bulb fertilizer to the soil to encourage strong root growth. Plant your bulbs and be ready for a stunning display of grape-like blooms in no time. Each bulb will produce one to three stalks, each with its densely packed cluster of flowers.
If they are planted in late fall, before the ground freezes over, they’ll happily take root in your garden. When planting from seeds, you can simply press them into your garden beds or containers and sprinkle a thin layer of soil over them. Water sparingly throughout the colder months. Once your plant is about two or three years old, it’ll begin producing its stunning blooms.
Transplanting new nursery-bought bulbs or propagated hyacinths is just as simple. This little perennial doesn’t need a lot of space to thrive. Whether in traditional beds or containers, all they need are three-inch deep holes that are three to four inches apart. Once planted, water thoroughly and deeply.
These garden favorites are relatively small plants and can be planted in mass groupings. Multiple plants can also be planted in a single container. Grape hyacinth’s small size makes it a great choice for smaller containers and even medium-sized hanging baskets.
When planting in containers, remember these plants hate soggy soil. The bulbs are prone to rotting when left moist for long periods, ultimately killing the plant. Ensure the containers have a few drainage holes and are filled with a well-draining potting mix.
How to Grow
Grape hyacinths are prized for their beautiful, striking blooms. However, they’re a lot more than just pretty flowers.
They are also extremely low-maintenance plants that will naturalize anywhere. As long as their light and soil needs are met, grape hyacinths will happily take root in any space and spread just as easily. Unfortunately, this spreading nature makes them an invasive species.
Grape hyacinths are lovers of the light, needing full sunlight to truly thrive. With that said, they can tolerate some shade, especially in warmer climates. Late afternoon shade is no issue either, as long as they receive at least more than half a day’s worth of sunlight.
They’ll thrive in bright sunny spots in the garden, along east-facing walls. It’s also important to note the change in sun direction based on the season. Shadier spots in summer tend to be slightly sunnier in spring, which opens more planting sites.
The extra sunlight has some added benefits, too. It speeds the up evaporation of excess water in the soil and on leaves and flowers, reducing your chances of disease.
Grape hyacinths thrive in rock gardens, looking their best against the harshly textured backdrop. They’re not extremely thirsty, needing only a moderate amount of water once a week. If they’re in a rainy climate, they’ll happily thrive on rainfall alone.
It’s important to note that grape hyacinths hate soggy soil, which can ultimately lead to bulb rot. Once they’re established, only water them when the soil has dried out slightly.
They may not be fussy plants, but the correct watering habits are crucial. It’s important to water your plants in the morning, as any excess water will evaporate throughout the day. You should also water slowly and deeply. This allows the water to evenly saturate the soil, without drenching it.
Grape hyacinths in containers may need to be watered more frequently, as the soil dries out a lot faster in containers. Check the soil regularly and water when the top few inches of soil have dried out. This should be around 2-3 times per week on average, and potentially more often in the hot summer sun.
These pretty bulbs require very well-draining soil to thrive and are not picky about the soil’s pH levels. Bear in mind that the soil type may change your watering habits. Sandier soils dry out faster than clay ones, meaning you may need to water your plants more often. Generally, however, grape hyacinths prefer soil on the sandy side, which is why they grow so well in rock gardens.
You can easily improve your soil’s drainage by adding a few soil amendments. Heavier soils can be amended with sand or fine gravel to increase the spaces between soil particles. These amendments not only improve drainage but also aeration, which prevents the soil from becoming compacted and delivers oxygen to the roots.
Climate and Temperature
Grape hyacinths thrive in USDA zones 4-8, although some varieties can grow in zones 3-9. The M. botryoides species in particular fall under the latter section. They enjoy a wide range of temperatures and adapt well to a range of climates.
For the best results during the blooming season, they do prefer winters on the cooler side. These cold periods ensure they produce the stunning grape-like flowers they are known for. Warm winters may result in bloom failure the following spring.
Grape hyacinths naturalize easily and self-seed readily, especially if their basic needs are met. They thrive in a wide range of climates and will happily flourish in less than perfect conditions. If there is one thing this plant doesn’t need, it’s fertilizer.
You can apply a bulb fertilizer in containers to combat the leaching of nutrients, but this is not a necessity in the first few years of growth.
While this easy-going nature is alluring, it does mean that in many cases, these flowers can quickly become invasive. They may require extra maintenance to stop them from becoming uncontrollable.
Grape hyacinths are known for their fast-growing and low-maintenance nature. They are one of the few plants that fit the ‘plant it and forget it‘ description. While this makes them seem perfect for more laid-back gardeners, this simply isn’t the case.
They are considered an invasive species, spreading throughout your garden and into neighboring spaces quickly. The best way to control this seemingly uncontrollable spread is through post-blooming maintenance.
When flowers begin to die back, prune them away using sharp, cleaning pruning scissors. Remove just the flowers, not the whole stem, and avoid pruning healthy foliage. The left-over greenery will continue to photosynthesize, providing nourishment for the bulbs, ensuring a successful bloom the following year.
Once the flowering season has ended completely, the foliage will yellow and eventually die back. At this stage, you can cut the stems to the ground. You can also add a thin layer of mulch over the bulbs to prevent the growth of weeds.
In some cases, you may need to dig up a few bulbs to help prevent overcrowding, which may limit flowering. But, this will only be necessary after several years.
As mentioned, grape hyacinths are edible, appearing in several Mediterranean dishes. These are not to be confused with traditional hyacinths, which are extremely toxic if consumed.
The entirety of this plant is edible, but the flowers and buds are commonly harvested. You can simply pick whole blossoms or singular buds, depending on what you are planning on creating with these plants.
Harvesting the seeds for propagation is also an easy process. At the end of the blooming season, when temperatures rise, the seed pods begin to dry out. Simply snip the pods off the plant, crack them open and gather the seeds as necessary.
Varieties and Cultivars
Depending on your variety, your blooms could be different shades of blue, purple, or pink. Some even sport bright yellow and white flowers.
The most traditional grape hyacinth is the M. armeniacum, which has dark blue flowers. Another common variety is the M. aucheri. Its cultivar ‘Blue Magic’ is extremely popular, with eye-catching, rounded sky-blue flowers. A few other M. aucheri cultivars include, ‘Mount Hood’, ‘White Magic’, and ‘Ocean Magic.’
The ‘White Magic’ cultivar sports pale green buds which eventually become long-lasting white bulbs. The ‘Ocean Magic’ and ‘Mount Hood’ on the other hand, have slightly different varieties of blue blooms.
Another popular one is ‘Pearls of Spain’ which belongs to the M. botryoides subspecies. This cultivar’s brilliant white flowers give it its pretty name.
A truly unique twist on an already unique flower is the M. latifolium, which is multitoned. The top section of blooms is sterile and bright blue, while the second layer of blooms is fertile and has a dark purple-blue hue.
Another otherworldly grape hyacinth is the M. armeniacum ‘Saffier’ which has deep violet blooms with bright green tips. This striking plant doesn’t produce seeds, meaning it won’t spread as easily other varieties.
No matter the variety or cultivar you choose, you’ll be sure to have a striking bulbed display come spring.
Pests and Diseases
Grape hyacinths aren’t generally troubled with pests or diseases. However, their stunning blooms tend to attract aphids and spider mites. While these pests aren’t generally problematic and easy to control, they can spread the Yellow Mosaic Virus. This virus attacks grape hyacinths, having devastating results. Unfortunately, there is no cure for the yellow mosaic virus and infected plants should be uprooted and destroyed.
Luckily, both aphid and spider mite infestations are easy to manage and control. They can be picked off and squished between your fingers or tossed into a jar of soapy water. Larger colonies can be hosed off the underside of leaves, where both pests tend to reside. You can also use horticultural sprays, such as neem oil, which act as a natural pesticide. As helpful as these are, however, they do tend to deter beneficial insects.
Speaking of beneficial insects, some, like ladybugs, are aphids and spider mites’ natural predators. These predators can be easily introduced by planting their favorite flowers or purchasing online.
Yellow Mosaic Virus, aphids, and spider mites aren’t the only problems facing grape hyacinths. They are susceptible to bulb rot, especially when exposed to too much water. The best way to avoid this is by practicing the correct watering methods. Avoid overwatering these plants and ensure they’re planted in well-draining soil that’s on the sandier side.
Grape hyacinths are generally cultivated for garden use, looking fantastic in a large range of landscape designs. Their pretty blooms create a spectacular carpet of color when planted en masse or mixed with other spring bulbs like tulips.
They are great additions to beds and borders in cottage gardens. Their ability to thrive in sandy soils also makes them wonderful additions to rock gardens. The differing textures and bright colors of the blooms make a striking, head-turning display.
However, their uses go beyond the garden. As mentioned, the entire plant is edible and Its bulbs, buds, and flowers have been used in several Mediterranean dishes.
The flowers and buds are often pickled or infused in oils or vinegar and used as an onion substitute. They can also be used to create a grape hyacinth lemonade and syrup.
Grape hyacinths contain saponins, which make them bitter when eaten raw. Cooking or boiling the buds and flowers are said to improve their flavor.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are grape hyacinths invasive?
Yes, grape hyacinth is an invasive plant as it naturalizes and spreads rapidly. However, their spread can be contained through deadheading and other post-bloom maintenance.
There are also certain varieties, like the M. armeniacum ‘Saffier’, which don’t seed, and hence won’t spread.
Are grape hyacinths poisonous?
No, grape hyacinths are not poisonous and in fact, are edible plants that feature in a variety of Greek and Italian dishes. Grape hyacinths shouldn’t be confused with hyacinths, which are poisonous to both people and pets.
What’s the difference between hyacinth and grape hyacinth?
Grape hyacinths and hyacinths are from completely different plant families. Hyacinths are part of the Hyacinthaceae, while grape hyacinths are part of the asparagus family. Grape hyacinths received their name because their blooms look like a mix between a cluster of grapes and true hyacinths.
Do grape hyacinths come back every year?
While these perennial flowers only bloom during spring, with the right care, they can re-bloom every year.
Grape hyacinths are wonderful additions to any garden, suiting a variety of landscape designs. Their soft blooms look fantastic when planted en masse, or when planted in small groupings. These stunning perennials are also extremely low maintenance and settle in your garden in no time. These easy-going plants deserve a spot in every garden, and with a little bit of care, are sure to flourish without becoming too invasive.