Hyacinths for Christmas

What do you buy a gardener for Christmas? There are gloves, tools, hand cream and plants as well as more practical gifts like labels, compost and pots. But with all of us needing cheering up, I think that plants are a good choice and Nags Hall is packed with plants for all pockets and tastes. Over the next weeks I will concentrate on some of these but with start with hyacinths and hippeastrum.

Potted hyacinths ready to bloom were a rarity when I first worked at Nags Hall, forty years ago, and if you wanted these deliciously fragrant flowers for the festive season you had to plan ahead and plant prepared bulbs in September. Few of us bother with these now because hyacinths, in bud, are so easy to buy in December.

The great thing about hyacinths is that they are lovely in the house when in bloom yet can be planted in the garden afterwards and will bring colour to the garden for many years afterwards. It is often said that prepared hyacinths are ‘spent’ after they have bloomed but this is nonsense, as long as you treat them reasonably. So hyacinths are one of those gifts that will bring pleasure for years to come. I would not be without a pot of hyacinths in the house right now.

A few basics

Hyacinths are hardy bulbs. In the garden they like a sunny spot and will live for many years. If planted in shade they tend to fade away.

When you buy your hyacinths they will be in ornamental pots which may not have drainage. This is not a problem because the roots will survive standing in water for short periods. But the water level must not come above the base of the bulb. This is why we can grow hyacinths and other bulbs in ‘hyacinth glasses’ with their roots constantly in water. Do not allow them to dry out because this will cause the flowers to die quickly.

Hyacinths are hardy so are best in cool rooms indoors. The flowers should last two weeks if they are in a cool room. In a hot, stuffy room they may only last a few days. And while hyacinths smell delightful, they can smell less pleasant in a hot room and when ‘going over’. A kitchen windowsill or cool sunroom is perfect.

Hot, dark rooms also cause the flower stems to ‘stretch’ and flop over.

You can speed up or slow down growth, to time the for Christmas, by moving them from heat to cool rooms.

As the flowers fade you can plant them straight out in the garden. Ideally, strip the flowers off the flower stem. Otherwise cut off the flower stem. Dig a hole in the border and plant them, as they are, in a clump of three or more. The bulbs will have been planted with the tops above the compost in the pot but when replanting, put them so the bulb is 10cm deep. They will look a bit odd until they die down but this will ensure a good, repeat performance next year.

Do not thrown your bulbs away or just put them in a shed to dry off. They are much better if planted in the garden.

You can dress up a plain pot of hyacinths by adding a few sprigs of holly, some bright red cornus stems, some moss, pine cones or ribbon.


Hippeastrum, often called amaryllis, are another popular Christmas bulb. You can buy them now as dried bulbs, ready to plant, or as growing bulbs.

When planting bulbs, plant them so that the upper third to half is above the compost level – to allow room for compost under the bulb in the pot. Water sparingly at first until shoot growth appears. Then water more frequently.

How quickly they flower depends in heat, just like other bulbs. But avoid dark, hot rooms because this will cause the flower stems to become ‘stretched’ and they may fall over.

After flowering you can keep the plant and it will bloom another year. Remove the flowers but leave the stem, to die down naturally. Keep in a frost-free, bright spot so the leaves can develop and keep it growing all summer. Feed regularly to build up the bulb. After the first year your hippeastrum may flower at any time, but most often in spring or early summer. They are not hardy.

You can sometimes buy the bulbs dipped in wax. These will flower without planting but they will then die. It seems unnecessarily cruel to me.

Next week: The two Christmas favourites: Cyclamen and Poinsettias.

What to look for when buying and how to keep them into the New year.

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