Britain’s only hyacinth farmer is preserving rare bulb cultivars for flower lovers everywhere—no ark needed.
Most of us encounter hyacinths in the dark, colorless season of late winter. Our attention is grabbed in a shop by bulbs forced to bloom in soilless glass jars and — desperate for any hint of spring — we pay too much for their color and fragrance. After a few days of enjoying the distinctive scent, we toss the spent bulbs into the trash.
Considering how we treat hyacinths these days, it’s probably just as well that stores sell us only the simplest blooms. A mere century and a half ago, though, gardeners could draw from a pool of more than 2,000 hyacinth cultivars in an array of colors, some with multicolored blossoms and doubled petals. That number has fallen to a few hundred cultivars today, and modern gardeners would be hard-pressed to find even 20 in nursery catalogs. Thankfully, Englishman Alan Shipp is working to bring back overlooked and neglected hyacinth bulbs. Known as “The Noah of Hyacinths” in heirloom bulb circles, Alan curates the U.K.’s National Hyacinth Collection on a parcel of land about 70 miles north of London. His plots host close to 250 cultivars from around the world — the largest holding of rare hyacinths in existence. The collection spans roughly half an acre and encompasses an estimated 100,000 bulbs. The oldest cultivar, ‘Gloria Mundi,’ dates back to 1767. The newest is one of Alan’s own creation, a yet unnamed hybrid honoring a husband who nursed his wife back to health after a cancer diagnosis.
The bulbs of Hyacinthus orientalis, also known as Dutch hyacinth or garden hyacinth, first break the soil’s surface with a few wide leaves. Then, the plant sends up a tall raceme, which supports a series of strongly scented blossoms that cascade from a rounded crown. Hyacinths’ season is short, about two weeks, but as Alan says, “There’s no other flower that can give you this range of colors at the end of March.”
Sheltered by the rich alluvial soil along the River Cam, Alan’s collection is near the village of Waterbeach on the North Sea coast. Archeologists have uncovered many Roman ruins around Waterbeach. Although there’s no evidence the Romans brought hyacinths to the area, their epic poets certainly wrote about them. In Aeneid, Virgil describes “a drooping hyacinth, whose brightness and beauty have not yet faded.” Virgil knew the Greek legend — that the flower hyacinthos sprang up from the ground where the youth Hyacinthus’ blood was spilled by Apollo.
Although not as ancient as the Roman era, Alan’s family ties are deep in the soil of Waterbeach. He’s the third generation to farm the same property. His grandfather first grew fruits and vegetables there at the turn of the 20th century, and Alan’s father continued to farm the land and also imported produce for sale at local markets. Shortly after Alan took over the family land, he realized the small acreage in vegetables couldn’t compete with modern demands of production. In about 1985, he began searching for other ways to make a living. That’s how he encountered hyacinths.
“It was just sheer chance,” Alan says. “There was a clearance sale at a bulb nursery on the other side of Cambridge. I bought 20 each of five different hyacinth cultivars and planted them. I had always been a very keen gardener.”
As he learned more about hyacinths and found joy in growing them, Alan continued to expand his collection. He bought hundreds of kilos of bulbs from an English supplier, Taylors Bulbs, and tapped into the network of collectors and suppliers in the Netherlands, such as J. S. Pennings. He acquired two bulbs each of the more than 50 cultivars housed in the then National Collection at Wycliffe Hall Botanical Gardens in northern England, and began propagating them. By 1993, Alan’s own collection had been named the U.K.’s National Collection of Hyacinths.
Every collector hits a wall at some point. For Alan, that wall was at 108 cultivars. For a time, no new hyacinths came his way. Eventually, fate intervened in the form of a letter from Lithuania, in which a Vilnius University horticulturist described 31 distinct hyacinths she’d gathered from across the former Soviet Union. Many of these cultivars had disappeared from the West since World War II, and the horticulturist shared the bulbs with Alan. “There were hyacinths I’d never heard of, and some that were thought to be extinct,” Alan says. “I thought I’d missed seeing double-flowered yellow hyacinths by 100 years, but she had two — one with a name and one unidentified. I grew out the latter as ‘Unidentified Double Yellow.’ Then in 2013, by sheer chance, a friend of mine came across an illustration of it in The British Library. It was the world’s first double yellow hyacinth, introduced in 1770.” King George III owned this particular hyacinth, named ‘L’Ophir,’ which cost £800 for one bulb in the 18th century.
Soon after he began cultivating hyacinths in the 1980s, Alan learned the principles of propagation and, eventually, how to create his own cultivars. He recalls digging up his first hyacinth harvest. One bulb rolled under a shrub, and he didn’t find it until the following summer. “It had put its roots down but the rest of the bulb had been eaten away by slugs where it was exposed and, upon this surface, small bulbs had formed. The slugs had actually illustrated for me the method of propagating hyacinths,” he says. Now, Alan initiates propagation in mid-summer by removing the center of a bulb’s basal plate. After allowing time for the cut edges to heal, he places the bulb on a tray in a warm room for 12 weeks, during which small bulbs develop on the base. Then, the whole bulb is planted in the ground under 2 inches of soil. The small bulbs produce roots and leaves and live off the mother bulb’s food reserves.
How long can it take to propagate a hyacinth? A good grower will get a 15- to 20-fold increase in each four- to five-year generation of a single bulb. (If the bulb is derived from seed, add another six or seven years to these calculations.) A single bulb can produce as many as 160,000 commercially viable bulbs in 23 years. Alan reports that there are no particular difficulties in propagating hyacinths, “but one must have good hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of bacterial and viral infections.” Alan is particularly interested in unique color shades when he’s developing a new cultivar. Hyacinths produced in the Netherlands, he reports, are bred for specific commercial characteristics, such as suitability for growing in pots.
Alan began exporting bulbs to the U.S. from his farm within a few years of starting his business. He quickly developed a working relationship with Scott Kunst, founder of Old House Gardens, who’s also passionate about saving old cultivars. Old House Gardens is a Michigan mail-order company specializing in heirloom flower bulbs, and the exclusive U.S. dealer for Alan’s hyacinths. “There’s nothing like a phone call from Alan, out of the blue, telling me about some exciting new hyacinth he’s found,” Scott says. “It’s like the sun suddenly bursting out of the clouds on a beautiful spring day. He’s truly an inspiration and a world treasure.” To meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s import requirements, Scott says, Alan has to grow hyacinths for Old House Gardens on a special field that tests free of potato cyst nematode after harvest because the pest could decimate potato yields in the U.S. “Many of the old hyacinths, and old bulbs in general, are rapidly disappearing from the Dutch bulb fields. More and more of them we can only get from Alan. But because Alan is such a small grower, his bulbs are in very limited supply and much more expensive than those grown by Dutch farmers,” Scott says. A “disastrous spring” in 2016 meant that Alan had no hyacinths available for export to the U.S., but the 2017 harvest has gone much smoother.
Native to central and western Asia, the hyacinth was first documented in Europe in the mid-1500s, and was so rare and expensive that growing was limited to the gardens of extremely wealthy individuals. References to hyacinths cropped up in European literature for the next 150 years. But the bulbs didn’t inspire fanaticism until the early 1700s, when a Scottish horticulturist discovered a double white hyacinth with a rose-colored center. Double hyacinths are usually mutations of singles. “Previously, all double hyacinths had been discarded as inferior because they’re deformed by extra petals in the middle,” Alan explains, “but in 1708 Dutch breeder Peter Voorhelm so liked this one that he propagated it and called it ‘Konig Van Groot-Brettanje’ in honor of William of Orange — and that started the mania for white doubles with colored centers.” Hyacinth mania didn’t last long, but the bulbs’ popularity did continue through the 19th century among Victorian gardeners.‘Gloria Mundi’ is another rare double white cultivar with a colored center from the hyacinth mania era. ‘Gloria Mundi’ was thought to be lost for 250 years after its last appearance in a catalog in 1767. Here’s how it was rediscovered: The nursery manager for Avon Bulbs had a friend-of-a-friend who worked as a driver and delivered humanitarian aid to a remote Romanian village during the Ceausescu era. The driver attended a local wedding where the bride’s father urged him to take plants from the family’s garden. The driver chose a bulb and sent it to his friend, who in turn sent the bulb to the nursery manager, who then grew it out for 15 years. The manager met Alan because they both served on the Royal Horticultural Society’s Bulb Committee. As Alan tells it, “He said, ‘I’ve got an unusual hyacinth. It’s red and white. I can tell you’ve heard of it by the look on your face.’ It was ‘Gloria Mundi.’”
Alan’s dedication to hyacinths is fueled by the promise of such rediscoveries. “Lithuania, Belarus, Romania, and Bulgaria are yielding numerous treasures,” he says. Alan spends up to 10 hours a day in his field, where he tills hyacinths for display, trials, and seedlings. “I can’t say that what I do is much of a business,” he says. “It’s more of a hobby that gives me a bit of income, and selling bulbs has financed the conservation scheme. I’ve saved well over 100 rare bulb cultivars from extinction. I love hyacinths — their fragrance and their beauty.”
Alan Shipp hosts an annual open house on the last weekend of March, when his hyacinths are in bloom. The collection is located in Waterbeach, about 5 miles north of Cambridge. Email him at Alan.Shipp@Virgin.net for information.
The conservation group Plant Heritage helps organizations and individuals like Alan Shipp preserve and manage collections of related groups of plants. These gardens are classified as National Plant Collections. More than 630 collections have been designated in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Channel Islands. Explore the collections at NCCPG
Hyacinth Family: Asparagaceae Common names: Garden hyacinth; Dutch hyacinth Type: Bulb Zones: 4 to 8 Growing conditions: Full sun to partial shade; medium water; well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter; requires winter dormancy.
Rebecca Martin is an editor for Heirloom Gardener. She considers money spent on bulbs a wise investment.
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