Text By Tovah Martin
Imagine perfumed spring blossoms in a spectrum of colors blooming blithely on your windowsill in the dead of winter—Imagine hyacinths.
It’s brutal outside with the snow piled deep and the winds howling loud. The ground is frozen, the garden is slumbering, and it will remain dormant for months. But no matter—on your windowsill, a pageant is in the process of unfolding. At first just a few tentative leaves sprout from the center of a plump, rotund bulb. But then, one promising bud breaks free, begins to swell, and slowly its sheath peels back to reveal a cluster of kindred florets tucked inside. Gradually, each floret unfurls its nuanced splendor. Those emerging flowers start pale before blushing to a truer shade—be it purple, pink, magenta, peach, white, or blue. Meanwhile, their fragrance evolves from muted to munificent. No jasmine compares in sight or smell, although the deep, musky aroma of gardenias might be an apt analogy. With zero effort from you, no green thumb, and little light, your hyacinth is perking along brilliantly on autopilot. Anyone who doesn’t believe in magic should grow a hyacinth.
Just think of the thrill when the first hyacinth bulb sprouted on the windowsill of some nameless winter-weary gardener in the 18th century. The event probably transpired in the 1730s, when the novelty of ultra-valuable hyacinth bulbs were commodities for investment speculation in Holland. How the trick of forcing hyacinths indoors came to be discovered, nobody knows for sure. Perhaps someone hoarded a bulb inside rather than tucking it into the garden. And then, one bitter winter day, that bulb began to sprout. And maybe that gardener balanced it in a vase of water, since the soil was still frozen outside. And that was the beginning of the first midwinter waltz with a hyacinth tricked to deliver the promise of spring long before anything was happening outdoors.
For a hundred years, hyacinths were the privilege of the wealthy while the rest of the world longingly looked on. It was not until the 1830s that hyacinth bulbs became sufficiently inexpensive for the average gardener to obtain, thanks to improved transportation from the bulb growers in Holland to gardeners in other parts of the globe. And that is when hyacinths hit the mainstream to transform winter for everyone.
Of all the spring bulbs, hyacinths are the easiest to coax into performance on the inside of the frosty panes. Basically, hyacinths do not need anything more than the running start of a cooling segment to start their little engines revving. Hyacinths require about 10 weeks of pre-chilling. Keep them in the refrigerator until the end of December, and they should be ready for action. You could pot the bulbs in a container, but another option is also available for hyacinths. After pre-chilling, place a hyacinth bulb in a forcer just above the water line (wear gloves when handling hyacinth bulbs, they can cause skin irritation), put it on a windowsill, and wait. In just a few weeks, the first signs of foliage and flower buds will emerge. Keep the water fresh by emptying it out, rinsing the roots, and filling it up again. Meanwhile, enjoy the slow splendor.
Something as remarkable as a hyacinth deserves a sparkling presentation. Hyacinth forcers first appeared in the 1730s and quickly gained the contours of the hourglass figure so popular at the time, with a cup to balance the bulb and a pinched waist to keep it from sinking into the water below. Although hyacinth forcers come in clear glass, that’s just the beginning. Playing off the spectrum of shades that hyacinth flowers display, hyacinth forcers come in complementary colors, and there’s nothing more beautiful than light playing through colored glass. A hyacinth coupled with a forcer is the perfect package to brighten the bleakest of winter days.
Spring may be many weeks away. Storms will blow in; snow will pile up. Sometimes, it might feel interminable. But then, you’ve got that little glass vase perched on your windowsill blooming its courageous heart out. Hyacinths are hope.