Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Gardening: Last of the Spring Scilla, Wood Hyacinth

I love spring anywhere, but if I could choose I would always greet it in a garden. – Ruth Stout

Now that's a lot of wood hyacinths. Photo: Rob Rover, Flickr ccl
I'm always amazed when the wood hyacinths bloom. Even though I know they're in my garden, they always seem to sneak up on me. For much of the Spring they're just some uninteresting leaves. Then all of a sudden stalks shoot up and are quickly followed by blooms. Many stalks and many blooms!

Photo: Naill McAuley, Flickr ccl
Wood hyacinth (Hyacinthoides hispanica or Scilla hispanicus) are native to southwestern Europe and Northern Africa. They are remarkably hardy, surviving in USDA Zone 3 through 8. They are one of the tallest Scilla and the last to bloom. Wood hyacinth flowers range in colour from pink, to white, and light to dark blue, so there's essentially a colour for nearly everyone's taste. Sorry, no reds, oranges or yellows...

Wood hyacinths are a member of the scilla family. Scilla (or Squill) are bulb-forming perennial plants native to woodlands, subalpine meadows, and seashores throughout Europe and Asia.

Clumps of wood hyacinth bulbs produce inch-wide, strap-like leaves which splay (rather unimpressively) out to the ground. Never fear, the display is yet to come. Magically, up from the centre arises multiple flower stems, each often in excess of 12 inches in height. Hanging from the sturdy stems are stunning clusters of nodding, bell-shaped flowers.

The flowers actually bear striking similarity to those of the cultivated varieties of hyacinth (Hyacinthus) with which we are much more familiar, but they are much more sparse on the stem. In fact before I actually knew what they were I often thought they may be garden hyacinths that had become old and tired, or were in poor growing conditions.

I wasn't until I inherited some clumps and started paying attention to them that their true beauty started to become clear.

Photo: Timothy Valentine,
Flickr ccl
Often found in bulb catalogs under Scilla campanulata or Endymion hispanicus (older names), wood hyacinths have been reclassified as Hyacinthoides hispanica. The new name is appropriate because of their resemblance to true hyacinths. Although their fragrance is light compared with that of traditional garden hyacinths, wood hyacinths are much more vigorous and will increase year after year if given the right conditions.

Wood hyacinths are quite care free. Just plant and forget. They do look best in "colonies" so make sure you plant 8-16 bulbs per location, or you will be waiting years for impressive clumps.

They are excellent for woodland plantings, perennial beds, wildflower gardens or even among shrubs. Wood hyacinths live for many years and over time form impressive clumps that naturalize well, providing color and contrast in shady areas.

Plant wood hyacinths beneath large trees in partial shade, and combine them with other shade-tolerant perennials, such as ferns, hostas, and woodland phlox. They are also lovely mingling with evergreen ground covers, such as periwinkle (Vinca minor) or pachysandra. Or plant them at the bases of colorful spring-flowering shrubs, such as azalea and forsythia.

Photo: Vicky TGAW, Flickr ccl
Before planting, enrich your soil with organic matter. Set bulbs about 5 inches deep. Each spring, clip off old flowers and let the leaves ripen through midsummer, when they turn yellow and die back. Pest and disease problems are rare.

Wood hyacinths dislike too much disturbance. Do not dig or divide the plants unless really necessary. You will have to dig deep, as wood hyacinths have a way of going deeper into the ground as they multiply.

If you must divide or move, lift the bulbs in early summer after the foliage turns yellow and dies back. Replant the bulbs immediately or store in a dry medium (like wood shavings/sawdust) for fall planting.

All in all, wood hyacinths are a beautiful shade-loving flower that will brighten the corners of your garden as summer plants are waiting their turn.

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