How to Plant, Grow and Care For Hyacinth Flowers
If you are looking for an early blooming perennial to add to your garden, Hyacinths might be the perfect plant for you! Hyacinths are a popular garden flower for a number of different reasons. In this article, certified master gardener Liz Jaros shares the proper steps for growing hyacinth in your garden, including maintenance and care.
Few sights and smells arouse the senses like a newly opened hyacinth flower (Hyacinthus orientalis). Emerging in early spring, after the crocuses have gone back to bed but before the tulips have fully awakened, hyacinths hold a special place in a gardener’s winter-weary heart.
They pepper the landscape for just a week or two with extra-large, bottle-shaped blooms in shades of pink, purple, white, and red. Their strong, sweet odor is among the most easily identifiable flower scents. They are often kept as cut flowers indoors for their smell. Their dramatic blooms have a cottage charm that stands the test of time.
Considered one of the easiest bulbs to grow and largely resistant to disease and pests, hyacinths make a lovely addition to the landscape whether you are new to gardening or have been around the potting shed a few times.
Read on for a detailed look at this plant’s growing requirements, and maintenance needs as well as a roundup of some popular varieties you might want to try in your own yard.
Scientific Name Hyacinthus Orientalis
Plant Type Perennial Bulb
Hardiness Zones 3-10
Native Region Southwestern Asia
Height 8-10 inches
Planting Depth 4-6 inches
Sun Exposure Partial Shade to Full Sun
Soil Type Well-drained
Bloom Season Early to mid-spring
Water Needs Moderate
Pests Squirrels and Rodents
Diseases Boytris, Root Rot
Plant Spacing 6 inches apart
Maintenance Needs Moderate
Uses Garden Flowers, Cut Flowers
Plant With Tulips, Daffodils, Muscari
As members of the Asparagaceae family, hyacinths produce a raceme-form flower that is actually a cluster of smaller flowers along an axis. Collectively they make up what we consider a hyacinth bloom. But technically they are a mass of tiny, tubular flowers with six reflexive petals in a star formation.
Hyacinths have bulbous roots and typically send up just one flower per bulb. Blooms average between 6 and 12 inches in height. They are cradled by thick, fleshy leaves that are lance-shaped and slightly incurved. Hyacinths perform best in locations with full sun and well-drained soil, and they are perennial in zones 3 through 8.
How to Grow
Common hyacinths are considered low-maintenance perennial plants and are relatively easy to grow. They are slow to establish since each bulb produces only one flower, but they will begin to spread by clump after the first season. Unfortunately, their life span is short and you can only expect blooms to repeat with vigor for about 4 years.
For this reason, some gardeners treat hyacinths as if they were annuals. They pop bulbs in the ground in late fall and pull them up after they flower in the spring.
Others treat them like houseplants, chilling their bulbs inside and forcing them to bloom in late winter. This is when their beautiful colors and sweet scents are most appreciated.
Whatever your methods and objectives are for growing this exceptional spring beauty, knowing a bit about hyacinth preferences and care will help put you on the path to success. Read on for a closer look at some of this plant’s basic needs.
Hyacinths require full sun, and that means at least 6 hours of direct light. The hours do not need to be consecutive. However, with any less than 6 they might not flower as fully or as brilliantly as they ordinarily do.
In warmer climates, these hours should be concentrated in the cooler part of the day, ideally, since hot afternoons may lead to faded flower color or possible wilting.
Hyacinths require soil that has a high concentration of organic matter and a sandy-loam texture to facilitate drainage. To encourage balance and full integration, your beds should be amended well ahead of planting time and annually after that.
Compost, rotted manure, bark mulch, wheat straw, and untreated grass clippings can all help increase your soil’s organic content. Peat moss, sawdust, and dried leaf additives will also help create the easy-draining conditions your hyacinth flowers demand.
Like most bulbs, hyacinths prefer soil with neutral acidity. Before planting, pick up a garden center pH test and sample the beds. Ideally, levels should be around 7. If they’re not, sulfur or sulfate products can be incorporated to increase acidity, and lime-based products can be worked in to reduce it.
If you remember one thing about hyacinths’ watering preferences, let it be this; they do not like wet feet or standing water. Flood them with the hose or plant them in a location that does not drain well and they will likely die. Their bulbous roots are highly susceptible to fungal and bacterial disease and must be quenched carefully.
With this in mind, and assuming you’re planting in the fall, all newly installed hyacinth bulbs will have to be watered evenly until they enter dormancy.
With a goal of keeping them moist but not soggy, aim to give them an inch of water every week. If you’re unsure what that looks like, place a pie pan at soil level and stop when water reaches an inch in height.
After planting, hyacinths do not usually require much in the way of supplemental watering. Give them a slow, even soak in early spring before they flower. Do it again while they are actively blooming, and they should be fine. Always direct irrigation at the ground and not the leaves or blooms to discourage fungal issues.
After your hyacinths are done flowering, they should not need any more supplemental water. In regions prone to drought, or in locations experiencing drought-like conditions, poke a finger three inches deep in the soil to assess the soil moisture. If things are dry three inches down, give them a drink until normal moisture levels return.
Climate & Temperature
Hyacinths are cold-loving plants that require a period of true dormancy in order to flower perennially. Hardy in zones 3-8, this genus needs about 12 weeks of temperatures below 50 degrees. And it can tolerate low temperatures down to about -25.
Gardeners in zones 6 and below can expect these conditions to be met during an average winter. This means it’s generally considered safe to leave hyacinth bulbs in the ground all year round.
Gardeners in zones 7 and 8 can either treat hyacinths like annuals and dispose of them at the end of the growing season or dig them up and store them in a cold, dark place to simulate winter. Gardeners in warmer regions will find that hyacinths do not grow well in extreme heat or sun.
Hyacinths are versatile flowers and will thrive in almost any location that meets their sun, soil, and irrigation requirements. Their scent and short stature make them a natural choice for border fronts and walkway plantings, but they also mix in beautifully with other spring-flowering perennials like daffodils, tulips, and phlox.
While they will do just fine in full sun, hyacinths can also be planted under trees or near mature shrubs since they will be done blooming in early to mid-spring before leaf canopies fill out.
Hyacinths will also grow well in mixed or single-flower container displays but be prepared to insulate them during dormancy to ensure a happy return next season.
Consider including hyacinths in your spring-cutting garden, as they have a long vase life, rigid foliage, and an intoxicating scent that will fill your house for weeks. Hyacinths can also be forced to bloom early indoors (jump ahead for instructions on how to perform this nature-duping gardener’s trick).
When choosing a location for planting hyacinths, keep in mind that their leaves will need to be left in place long after their blooms have faded (this allows them to store energy for next year’s flowers).
If you think you’ll be bothered by a few months of flopping, faded foliage in the front yard, consider planting your hyacinths in a bed where other perennials will grow up and fill out to cover them. Hostas, daylilies, and coneflowers all serve this purpose pretty well.
Since hyacinths typically send up one flower per set of leaves, they look best when planted in a cluster. Landscape designers typically favor odd numbers for plant groupings. This arrangement is more conducive to a natural staggering effect than an even quantity.
For bulb planting in regular beds, loosen dirt down to about ten inches with a pitchfork or shovel, turning it over and breaking up clumps.
Use a bulb planter or a trowel to dig holes that are 4 to 6 inches deep and 5 to 6 inches apart, and place bulbs at the bottom with the pointed part facing up. Cover loosely with dirt and water evenly.
Like most bulbs, hyacinths are best planted in the fall. This gives them time to establish roots before dormancy sets in. In warmer climates, where the ground never freezes, hyacinths can be planted at any time in the winter. They just need to be chilled for at least 12 weeks.
While hyacinths can technically be grown from seed, they can take up to 6 years to flower. It can be hard to keep track of their location and cultural requirements for this length of time, but gardeners looking for an adventure can start seeds indoors and/or sow them directly into the soil when temperatures are consistently above 60 degrees.
If you’re growing tired of winter and looking to brighten your kitchen with the sights and scents of spring, hyacinths can be forced into early bloom quite easily. This process can be done in a number of different ways. There are two common methods, in the fall and in the spring.
Fall Container Planting
- Select a container that is wider than it is tall.
- Make sure it has at least one drainage hole.
- Fill your pot halfway with a commercial potting mix.
- Place bulbs with their noses (pointed ends) up.
- Cover them with dirt just up to their tips.
- Give them enough water to moisten but not saturate the growing medium.
- Keep them moist until they enter dormancy.
- Store pots for at least 12 weeks in a cool, dark location.
- This might be a garage, a basement, or a refrigerator, for example.
- Check once a month to make sure soil is still somewhat moist.
- Water lightly if necessary.
- When you’re ready for early blooms, place the container in a sunny window.
- Water lightly every couple of days until your hyacinths start blooming.
Spring Container Planting
- Bulbs that have were dug up in fall can be stored in the refrigerator.
- Place clean, dry bulbs in a paper bag or another porous container.
- Store them in the refrigerator for at least 12 weeks.
- Do not store with fruits or vegetables as ethylene gas will harm bulbs.
- Select a container that is wider than it is tall.
- Ensure the container has adequate drainage.
- Fill your pot halfway with a commercial potting mix that promotes drainage.
- Place bulbs with their noses (pointed ends) up and cover them with dirt.
- You can expect green shoots to emerge within a couple of weeks.
- Place in a sunny window and water lightly every few days.
- Do water until flowering is complete.
While hyacinth flowers do produce seed pods and can be propagated from seed, this is not the preferred method for creating new plants from old ones. New plants, if they actually grow and are not sterile, will differ genetically from the parent plant, and it may take up to 6 years before flowering occurs.
By far the easiest and most common method for propagating hyacinths involves division. Each season, after flowering is complete, the mother bulb will direct its energy toward creating new offshoots or ‘bulblets’ underground. To grow new hyacinths from these bulblets, perform the following steps:
Growing From Bulblets
- In late summer or early fall, use a pitchfork or shovel to carefully dig up the plant.
- Look for the presence of mini-bulbs to indicate the plant is ready to be divided.
- There might be a few, or several mini-bulbs.
- It will depend on how long it’s been since the hyacinth was planted.
- Clean off as much dirt as possible with a brush or dry cloth.
- Use your fingers or a sharp, clean knife to separate the bulblets from the mother bulb.
- Include root hairs, a bit of the bulb, and some shoots/leaves in each new section.
- Replant the original hyacinth and its new offshoots as if they were new bulbs.
Hyacinths have modest maintenance needs and are relatively easy to care for. After meeting their sunlight, soil, and watering requirements, there are just a handful of seasonal tasks that should be performed to encourage big, beautiful blooms for as many years as possible.
An even NPK ratio of 10-10-10 is recommended for hyacinth bulbs. This will encourage healthy root, foliage, and bud development in equal measures and enhance the beauty of your plants.
Use a granular fertilizer at a rate of 5 tablespoons in 1 gallon of water per 10 square feet for the best control over distribution. Bonemeal and organic compost can also be used to boost soil nutrients if a more natural application is desired.
All fertilizer applications should be made immediately after planting bulbs in fall and again in early spring before blooms have opened.
Do not fertilize after your hyacinths have started flowering as this may damage the bulb and encourage root rot. A fall application is not necessary unless bulbs have just been planted or transplanted.
Hyacinth bulbs are sometimes vulnerable to ground heaving as a result of freeze-thaw cycles. They are also known to make a run for the sun when the region in which they’re planted is experiencing an early or late season warm-up.
To mitigate the damaging effects of these conditions (and to keep the ground moist in times of drought) apply a 2-3 inch layer of mulch in your hyacinth beds. Use organic materials such as wood chips, untreated grass clippings, compost, mulched leaves, or pine straw for best results.
If you’ve incorporated some hyacinths into your cutting garden (and we highly recommend you do!), harvesting the blooms at the right time is critical to their longevity and beauty. Here’s a step-by-step process for cutting them at the right time and enjoying them in a vase.
Cut Flower Harvesting Steps
- Hyacinth flowers are actually a raceme (or spike) of many tightly clustered flower buds.
- Watch for bud coloring to change from yellowish-green to slightly pink
- This will indicate they are about to pop.
- Watch for buds on the bottom of your racemes as they open.
- Then, your hyacinths are ready to be cut.
- If you’re treating them as annuals, dig them up completely and wash off their bulbs.
- A hyacinth with its bulb intact will last far longer than one that’s been cut.
- If you’d like your hyacinths to perennialize, you’ll have to leave the bulbs in the ground.
- Instead, cut just the stalks.
- Use clean, sharp scissors to snip your hyacinth flowers off close to their base.
- Select a heavy, upright vase for your arrangement, as hyacinths are top-heavy.
- A floral preservative can be mixed into the water if needed.
- Arrange your bulbs or cut stems in the vase.
- Place them in a location that does not get direct sunlight or extreme heat.
- Change your vase water every 48 hours and your hyacinths should flower for 7-11 days.
Deadhead & Cutback
Once your hyacinths are done blooming, go ahead and cut their flower stalks off at the base, but don’t touch the foliage. Leaves must be allowed to wither, yellow, and die back completely before they are ready to be cut down to the ground.
Eliminate them any sooner and you’ll have interrupted their energy storage process, which will greatly reduce the quality and quantity of next year’s blooms.
Although hyacinths do not have a particularly long lifespan, they will likely need to be divided after a couple of years in the ground. Signs that this maintenance task needs to be performed include leaves with no flowers, tightly packed foliage, and groupings with ‘dead’ centers.
To divide your hyacinths and prolong their lives for another year or two, dig up the entire plant and lay it on a tarp.
Depending on how large the bulb cluster is, you can either break the bulblets off with your hands or drive a flat shovel straight through the clumps to create smaller clumps. Replant new sections as you would a new bulb, and you’ll likely see better blooms and improved spacing next season.
In zones 3 through 6 or 7, hyacinth bulbs can be left in the ground all year round. They are highly tolerant of cold temperatures and will not freeze or die during a normal winter dormancy cycle. Cover them with mulch and make sure they are not the unwilling recipients of ice puddles or drainage runoff.
Hyacinths that are grown in pots should be protected from collecting water or being exposed to high levels of humidity. Pots can be moved into the garage or basement for a little extra insulation as long as you make sure they have airflow and do not dry out completely. Check on them once a month or so and water them lightly if they seem thirsty.
If you live in zone 7 or 8 and above and you’d like to save your bulbs for replanting in late winter or early spring, you’ll need to bring them inside to chill them out. Plan to dig up your bulbs in fall, after their foliage has completely died back.
Dry them off, place them in a paper box, mesh bag, or another porous container, and put them in the refrigerator for at least 12 weeks. Make sure the refrigerator does not also store fruit, as ethylene gas will rot hyacinth bulbs.
After they have completed their simulated dormancy cycle, plant your hyacinths back in the yard as you would a new bulb.
When the Dutch began experimenting with common hyacinths in the 17th century, they developed thousands of new cultivars.
Over the years, this large selection has been winnowed down to a relatively small group of roughly 60 varieties that are hardy, easy to grow, and reliably beautiful, and these are the varieties we find in commercial nurseries today. Here’s a look at some of the most popular:
Hyacinthus orientalis ‘Pink Surprise’
Averaging 8-12 inches in height and blooming in mid-spring for up to three weeks, this lovely hyacinth features a single spike with a tight arrangement of baby-pink flowers that have a sweet, light fragrance.
Hyacinthus orientalis ‘White Festival’
Unlike most common hyacinth plants which offer just one bloom per bulb, White Festival is a multi-floral variety that offers up to 6 flower clusters on each plant.
Blooms are loose and pendant-form with snow-white, trumpet-shaped flower clusters on a bright green axis. This cultivar averages 8-12 inches in height and blooms in mid-spring.
Hyacinthus orientalis ‘Peter Stuyvesant’
Flower spikes are dense with star-shaped, deep violet blooms on this dramatic hyacinth variety. A favorite with gardeners for its intense coloring and bright green leaf contrast, Peter Stuyvesant pairs well will other shades of purple, yellow, and white in the spring garden. Its stature is typical, at roughly one foot tall.
Hyacinthus orientalis ‘City of Haarlem’
Flower spikes are modest in size but delightfully colored in a buttery shade of yellow. Individual blooms are loosely concentrated and trumpet-shaped, drooping downward like a pendant. Stems and leaves are slightly more delicate and less upright on this hyacinth.
It’s often included in container garden arrangements or mixed borders where it fills in nicely around spring bloomers with a more rigid habit. You’ll also see it mixed in with other species in beautiful flower bed displays.
Hyacinthus Orientalis ‘Gypsy Queen’
Prized for its unusual color combination, Gypsy Queen features single racemes with a dense arrangement of star-shaped, reflexive blooms.
Petals vary from salmon to blush pink and change slightly over the course of this cultivar’s 2-3 week blooming period. It has a strong fragrance and a firm, upright habit.
Pests & Diseases
While hyacinths are not particularly vulnerable to pests and diseases, there are a few that plague the genus occasionally. As bulbous plants, they are susceptible to diseases and conditions that lead to rot.
They are also troubled by a handful of insects and critters. If you believe something’s wrong with your hyacinths, the cause can most likely be attributed to one of these culprits:
Bacterial Soft Rot
Poor drainage and/or improper watering practices are a bulbous plant’s biggest enemy, as overly wet conditions encourage bacteria to thrive. Symptoms of soft rot include irregular or deformed flowers, rotten stalk bases, and soft or slimy bulb tops.
A hyacinth that has been afflicted with soft rot will eventually fall over and die, contaminating the soil around it with bacteria. To prevent this disease from affecting nearby and future plantings, excavate some of the surrounding dirt when removing a diseased hyacinth from its bed.
To prevent soft rot from harming your hyacinths in the future, make sure they are properly spaced to promote airflow and implement smart watering practices. A slow soak is always preferable to a fast blast. And clean tools in between plants to discourage the spread of disease.
Botrytis (Gray Mold)
Caused by fungi in the garden due to cool, humid weather and poor plant spacing, Botrytis is a common but non-fatal disease that often affects hyacinths.
Early signs include circular spots that are reddish-brown and eventually fade to grayish-purple. Spots begin on leaves but may move to stems and flowers eventually. Late signs include a raised, fuzzy ‘mold’ on most or all plant parts.
To address Botrytis in your hyacinth beds, prune away any parts of the plant that show signs of mold and monitor them daily for new outbreaks. Typically, just a surface disease, Botrytis should not affect bulbs below the ground and is not likely to kill your plants. Proper spacing and diligent maintenance should prevent the condition from returning next year.
These pear-shaped, soft-bodied sap-suckers are the insects most likely to attack a hyacinth. Symptoms of their presence include mottled, yellowing, or stunted leaves as well as decreased growth rates and bloom production. Not only do they deliver physical damage to plant parts but they transmit diseases between species.
The best way to reduce aphid populations is with a hard spray of the hose directed at the areas in which they congregate followed by the application of insecticidal soap.
You can also try introducing or encouraging beneficial predators such as lady beetles and lacewings to the garden, as they both feast on aphids.
Snails & Slugs
Look for chew holes and frayed leaf edges as well as a slimy trail on leaf surfaces to indicate the presence of snails and slugs. These garden pests will be most active at night and in overly wet conditions so look for them with a flashlight if you suspect they are damaging your hyacinths.
Snails and slugs can be addressed with hand picking or hose spraying to physically remove them from the garden. They can also be trapped or lured away by strong-smelling liquids or attractive nearby habitats.
To prevent them from returning next year, keep beds tidy by removing leaves and weeds promptly. And always water in the morning to reduce nighttime moisture on leaf surfaces.
Deer, squirrels, rabbits, moles, and voles do not typically eat hyacinth flowers since their scent is overpowering and unpleasant to them, but they will munch on hyacinth bulbs if there’s not a whole lot else around to eat.
To discourage critters from digging up all your hard work and giving you heartbreak next spring, you can try providing them with other more attractive food sources or deterring them with flashing lights and sounds.
You can also try store-bought or homemade repellant that includes substances such as garlic, soy, and cayenne pepper. But the best way to keep mammals from damaging your hyacinth bulbs (or any other plant) will always be a fence or physical barrier that excludes them from the feast.
Although they share the hyacinth name and some general characteristics like small purple flowers, members of the grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum), purple hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus), and water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) families are actually descended from different genera.
The spring-blooming, common hyacinth flowers we plant in the ornamental garden today are all varieties of Hyacinthus orientalis and will have large, spiky flowers, strong scents, and a mid-spring bloom time.