This section is from the book "The Florist And Garden Miscellany". Also see: All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!.
Hyacinths are but little known in England, except as forced in glasses or in pots, or as a border flower; and a general impression prevails that our climate is unsuited to their growth, except for the first year of their importation. I think, however, there is reason to doubt the correctness of this opinion; first, because the neighbourhood of Haarlem, the great region of their production, is on the same parallel with the centre of England, nor is the difference of climate at the season of the year when Hyacinths are under its influence perceptible in other things; secondly, because the method of curing the bulbs pursued by the Dutch is never, so far as I have been able to learn, fairly tried in England, nor is the soil or place of their growth out of doors regulated by a due knowledge of the wants and habits of the plant; and lastly, because, under certain circumstances, it has happened, that persons who plant their forced Hyacinths, after flowering, in the open borders, and leave them undisturbed, have found in a year or two that the self-acclimatising powers of nature have restored some of these exhausted bulbs to their original powers of blooming.
Now, if this happened but once, it would shew the recovery to be possible; but, in fact, it happens often, and when no particular care is taken; leaving us to suppose that it arises from the bulb meeting with some peculiar soil and locality which agrees with its constitution. And this I take to be the true cause of the restoration; so that sufficient encouragement is really given to those who have the opportunity and the will to attempt the native growth of this beautiful and fragrant flower in England.
I once tried it, and failed; and every one who manages matters as I did will fail too. Yet I assure you that even my failure, in 1829, was a very pretty failure as it stood, and attracted several persons from London some miles into the country to see a bed of between 500 and 600 Hyacinths under a frame-house; and those, moreover, of the rarest and most expensive kinds. For instance, there were nine of Quentin Durward in the bed, a sort that at that time bore an exorbitant price in the London market.
This bed produced me about a pint of seed (the double flowers yielding a fair share of it), which, with the bulbs after flowering, I gave to a nurseryman in my neighbourhood, who having his living to make in the regular line of his business, and therefore being unable to go out of his way for uncertainties, planted the bulbs in stiff clay ground, where, of course, they gradually died. The seedlings eventually fared no better, although I saw among them a double red of the character of Raphael, but more double, and both deeper and brighter in colour, which in Holland would have commanded a handsome price.
Probably some of your readers may suppose me a rich person, or, otherwise, one who writes with a magnifying pen; yet I was then, as now, a curate with a not overburdened pocket, and although the magnificent shew I had that year, and which is remembered still by many in a village fifteen miles west of London, had its origin in a mistake which cost me many a sleepless night of anxiety, yet, eventually, the cost to me, through the liberal dealing of Mr, Wright, of Oxford Street, came within the limits of even a curate's pocket. And my object in this paper is, to shew that in these days of quick and cheap locomotion, if any person should take a fancy to have a similar bed - a person in the trade for instance - as an advertisement, he might make it answer his purpose, and very possibly would discover that the bulbs may be propagated and prepared as well in England as in Holland.
From the steeple of Haarlem church, in the middle or latter end of April, you may look down upon a sea of Hyacinths, of all colours, in bloom, covering hundreds of acres with their beauty, and filling the air with their perfume. At this time it is that the annual sales take place; and any one attending them may not only revel in the delight of inspecting this beautiful flower in all its varieties in their now naturalised locality, but, by purchasing a quantity, may make it worth his while to take the trip. And if he returns without having a bed of his own the next season, he will exhibit a deficiency of floral enthusiasm for which I should not envy him.
Should any one be inclined to try the experiment, a few hints may be acceptable.
1. The roots of the Hyacinth are known to penetrate to the depth of three feet; and though drainage may seem to be of little consequence to a plant that grows well in water alone, yet this would be found a mistake. In sodden earth the roots canker, decay, and perish, as soon as those of any other plant. The soil in which they are to grow must therefore be three feet in depth, below which there must be a sufficient drainage. It should be managed, in short, just as the pit of a Tulip-bed is; only it is to be remembered, that the Hyacinth must not, as the Tulip may, be planted afterwards in open ground where there is not sufficient depth, pabulmn, freedom; otherwise all previous labour on that bulb is lost, and it must begin again de novo.
2. The offset bed must be prepared in the same manner, and with at least equal care with, if not quite so deep as, that of the principal bed. The soil at Haarlem is so sandy, that iron spades are all but unknown there. Wooden spades are used; and with one of these I have dug to the depth of above four feet without coming to anything that could impede the further penetration of the Hyacinth root. No wonder, therefore, they thrive like the free citizen of Athens of old; there is nothing to cramp or hinder them from thriving. In England this must be procured artificially; but I do not think this will involve trouble or expense to an amount prohibitory of growing them for profit.
3. The soil, as I observed, is either a light but rich sandy peat, or pure sea-sand rich in salts; so rich, indeed, that the oak flourishes there, as may be seen in the valleys in the midst of the sandhills between Haarlem and the sea. It is in this that the bulbous and tuberous plants thrive so surprisingly; and I believe it is the soil and the mode of cultivation, not the climate, that make the difference between the English and the Dutch-grown Hyacinth. Make the soil, therefore, approximate to that of Haarlem; let half or two-thirds be sea-sand, and one-third peat or leaf-mould, the whole sufficiently watered with ocean salts - chloride of sodium, sulphate of soda, and sulphate of magnesia; to which may be added with advantage a little nitrate of soda and muriate of ammonia; the whole of which salts, sufficient to impregnate compost for a bed to grow one thousand Hyacinths, would not amount to five shillings; and the compost will last from seven to ten years without changing.
4. To ripen its seed the plant exhausts itself; therefore those not intended to seed should have the stalk cut as soon as the flower becomes unseemly. The ripening of the bulb, and perfecting its embryo spike of buds for the next season, is a matter of some delicacy, on which the Dutch lay great stress; and the following is the plan, as far as my memory will give it twenty-three years after date. The spike being cut as soon as the bloom begins to fade, the plant is left until the leaves have become sere half way down. They are then carefully raised, with as much root as possible, and laid in by the heel until roots and leaves have completely withered. Then they are dried in the open air, but under cover, until the callus to which the roots are attached will peel off like the boiled choke of an artichoke. The leaves are then cut close to the bulb, which is placed on a frame so contrived as to admit air around it to every part, with an entire protection from sun and weather. The frame, in fact, exactly resembles a bottle-rack with a penthouse roof, or that used for drying wood.
When dry, they are separately wrapped in paper and labelled.
5. They are planted in October; but as in a show-bed it is very important to have all the colours in bloom at once - and as this is no easy matter, requiring not only a general knowledge of their times of flowering, but a particular knowledge of each variety - it may be as well to know how the Dutch apply this knowledge to compel them to uniformity. This is by planting the latest bloomers deepest; and my impression is, that the difference between the greatest and least depth is as much as a foot. And, as a general rule, I can myself answer for its being very decidedly thus: that the blue are the earliest in flower, and the deepest in colour the first, the red next, the white third, and the yellow last.
I remember some years ago, a gentleman at an auction giving 80 guilders (6/. 13s. 4d.) for a 3/4 share in a bulb of a new variety; and on my inquiring of a friend how such bargains were managed, he said, that the person holding the largest share in a bulb has the right of growing it, and the offsets are apportioned according to the shares. The same friend (the late Mr. Stahl, of Haarlem) told me that a mode of hastening the production of offsets, but hazardous to the parent, and therefore rarely practised on high-priced flowers, is, to scoop out the inside of the bulb into the shape of a cone with a sharp and narrow penknife, leaving the margin whence the roots sprout untouched. When dry, both portions are planted; and if the operation be survived, they make their appearance above ground in the form of numberless small offsets. He further added, that in this way sometimes new colours are obtained, by using a knife wet with the juice of a coloured flower to operate upon the bulb of a white, and instanced the blue Globe terrestre as produced in this way from the white Sultan Achmet; and that a red, - the name of which I cannot at this moment recollect, though I remember the flower, - was afterwards produced in the same way from the same parent.
This seems questionable; although the form, size, habit, and all but colour of those three varieties are certainly identical.
As the Hyacinth is very much more prolific than the Tulip, and as the offsets and seedlings come sooner to maturity, I hope some of your readers may be induced to try the experiment of English-grown bulbs. And more especially in the case of seedlings, I should expect much in the general improvement of the flower from the severer taste of English breeders.