Grape hyacinths are a staple in the spring garden. Few other lesser spring bulbs have flowers in such an intense blue (possibly excepting Scilla). They combine beautifully with daffodils and tulips. Most are easy to grow, multiple quickly and have lovely fragrances. There are a surprising number of lesser known grape hyacinths to choose from, some quite bizarre. This article will introduce you to some of the divesrity that exists among grape hyacinths.
One of the standard "blue spring bulbs"are the grape hyacinths (the other being scillas). Among gardeners, grape hyacinths quite recognizable with their tight, conical heads of tiny rounded flowers that are indeed arranged like little clusters of grapes. Grape hyacinths are members of the genus Muscari. The name comes from the Latin ‘moschos' meaning musk, alluding to the musky fragrance of some species. In fact most are fragrant to some degree, some beautifully so, even though I for one, have rarely bent down low enough to enjoy the fragrance. There are about 30 species, all native to the Mediterranean region and Asia minor. Blue is the predominant colour, but they also come in white, pale ice blue, yellow and even gray-green! Their leaves are somewhat grass-like and relatively fleshy. Plants grow 10-20 cm and most are hardy to zone 4, even colder if snow cover is good and plants are well mulched. In the wild, they grow in well-drained meadows, forest-edges and alpine situations, generally in full sun. In the garden, they prefer similar situations. Many are quite prolific, making them suitable for naturalizing. They bloom a little later than most of the lesser spring bulbs, combining admirably with late season daffodils and mid-season tulips.
By far the most popular species is M. armeniacum, which is not surprising as it is probably the most prolific and floriferous species. The flowers are various shades of blue along with white. There are several named selections, the most popular being ‘Heavenly Blue'. Other popular cultivars include ‘Cote d'Azur' (mid-blue), ‘Dark Eyes' (bright blue) and ‘Valerie Finnis' (sky-blue). For something really different try the double-flowered ‘Blue Spike' or ‘Fantasy Creation', whose flowers look like small heads of broccoli!
Some selections of M. armenicum: 'Heavenly Blue', 'Valerie Finnis' and 'Fantasy Creation'
A similar species is M. aucheri. However, this species produces both fertile flowers (lowermost on the spikes) and sterile flowers (located at the top). It too has several named selections including ‘Blue Magic' whose fertile flowers are mid-blue while the sterile are light blue and ‘Mt. Hood' whose fertile flowers are dark blue while the sterile flowers are pale blue to white, lending a striking two-tone effect to the spikes. ‘White Magic', as the name suggests, is a white-flowered form. Another look-alike is M. neglectum, whose flowers are deep blue, rimmed in white; very beautiful! The cultivar ‘Baby's Breath' has pale blue flowers not unlike those of M. armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis'. Muscari botryoides is yet another similar species whose tiny round blossoms are more loosely spaced on the spikes. The regular form is mid-blue but perhaps more popular is the white form called ‘Album'. My favorite is M. azureum whose flowers are brilliant azure-blue and the individual blossoms more bell-shaped rather than rounded. The shortest and latest blooming grape hyacinth is M. pallens, which blooms with the single late tulips. The flower spikes are small but individual flowers are relatively large and pale ice blue.
Some other grape hyacinths include M. aucheri 'Blue Magic', M. botryoides 'Album', M. pallens, M. azureum and M. neglectum 'Baby's Breath'
The other available grape hyacinths look a bit different than the previous. Muscari latifolium has larger, typical grape hyacinth flowers that have dark blue-black fertile flowers and uppermost mid-blue sterile flowers, creating a striking two-tone effect. However, the unique feature of this species is the solitary, quite broad leaf that accompanies each bulb. It is also slower to increase than the other previously mentioned species. Quite bizarre is M. comosum. The wild species has fertile flowers that are purple in bud but open to greenish-maroon! The topmost sterile flowers produce a bright violet-blue tuft at the top of the spikes. More popular in the trade is ‘Plumosum', where the entire flower is covered in fluffy, bright violet sterile flowers, lending a bottle-brush effect.
Details of Muscari latifolium
For the real bulb fancier there are two quite unusual grape hyacinths; M. ambrosiacum and M. macrocarpum ‘Golden Fragrance'. These both have highly fragrant flowers but are more challenging to grow as they need to bake in summer. They are also slow to reproduce. However, bloom-wise, they are indeed unique. Muscari ambrosiacum has greenish-turquoise to lightly green-tinted violet-blue flowers with flared tips that are brownish. Not a floral knockout, but heavenly scented. Muscari macrocarpum is the largest of the grape hyacinths, reaching to nearly a foot. The flowers are rather spaced on the spikes but are bright yellow with flared brownish tips and again, highly fragrant. These last two are not as hardy as the previous species, being rated for zone 5-6.
One last grape hyacinth wannabe that should be included here is Bellevalia paradoxa. The genus Bellevalia has flowers that appear partway between squills and grape hyacinths, but B. paradoxa (aka B. pycnantha) appears very much like a grape hyacinth. The main difference is the fact that the rounded blooms have distinct ridges that run the length of the flower. The blooms are medium-dark blue.
Now that the bulb planting season is closing in, make room for some grape hyacinths. Their delicate charm and bright blue flowers are a welcome site after a long snowy winter!
I would like to thank the following people for the use of their pictures: Galanthophile - M. azureum, kniphofia - M. armeniacum 'Valerie Finnis', John_Benoot - M. neglectum 'Baby's Breath' and KMAC - M. macrocarpon 'Golden Fragrance'
About Todd Boland
I reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.