‘The hyacinth went from cult to craze to commonplace’
The hyacinth was one of the most celebrated flowers in the Classical world, but later, like its compatriot the tulip, it ‘went from cult, to craze, to commonplace’. Mark Griffiths traces the rise, fall and rise again of an anciently revered bloom and Jack
Hyakinthos (in Greek, or hyacinthus in Latin) was a princely youth from sparta. apollo became infatuated with him and, setting aside his customary pursuits such as poetry, joined him in some spartan athletics. the god threw a discus; it landed, rebounded, hit hyakinthos and killed him. From his spilt blood, there arose a new plant: the hyacinth. Grief-stricken, apollo inscribed letters on its flowers. these were either ai (alpha, iota), as in the cry of lamentation ‘ai, ai’, or ya (upsilon, alpha), the first two letters of hyakinthos when written in the Greek alphabet.
in another myth, this same plant sprang from the blood of ajax when he committed suicide. here, the ai
‘Hyacinths fell victim to their own success. The market grew and choice diminished
marks on its petals were both the aforementioned wail and the first two letters of Aias, the Greek spelling of Ajax.
The ancients were in no doubt that such plants existed; they knew, gathered and grew them. Theocritus, Virgil, Ovid, Pliny the Elder, Columella, Pausanias and Palladius are among many Classical authors who mentioned them in poems and works on natural history, horticulture and geography. Here’s a profile I’ve assembled from such sources.
These hyacinths were found from South-west Europe to the Near East. Their leaves were sword-shaped. Opening in spring and summer, their flowers were deep purple, bright crimson or blush and trumpet- or funnel-like, described as similar in general shape to those of Paradisea
liliastrum or Lilium candidum, but smaller than the latter. Their petals bore markings that resembled A, I or Y, formed either by actual veins or by vein-like streaks of colour.
Associated with Apollo, they were one of two plants that were awarded for excellence in poetry, his favoured art, the other being laurel. Hyacinth flowers were also woven into crowns and garlands for religious rites and holidays. The Spartans were said to have started this practice, celebrating the death and transfiguration of Apollo’s darling—their famous son—in the Hyacinthia, an annual festival that fell in early summer. The Romans called these plants
hyacinthus and sometimes identified that name with another: gladiolus. In its modern botanical sense, Gladiolus contains European and Middle Eastern species that fit the profile: the flowers of Gladiolus communis,
G. italicus and G. atroviolaceus are magenta, rosy blush and dark amethyst respectively and each has petal markings that could pass for A, I, or Y. To the Romans, however, gladiolus signified not just the plants we still know by this name, but also some Iris species with sword-shaped leaves. They appear to have regarded these, too, as Apollo’s hyacinthus.
The Iris flowers in question were rarely crimson or pink or much like a lily’s in shape, but many were mauve or purple and the letters of mourning were legible in the veins on their petals.
In the Renaissance, botanists termed this fabled flower ‘the Poets’ Hyacinth’ (as it often appeared in Classical verse) and debated its true identity. Some concluded that it was a Gladiolus species; others, an Iris. In London, in 1571, for example, Pierre Pena and Matthias de l’obel published the name
Hyacinthus poetarum for the plant that we now know as Iris latifolia: this species, they asserted, was the hyacinth of ancient renown.
More recently, other candidates have been proposed—the larkspur Consolida ajacis, Turk’s cap lilies, various orchids and fritillaries—but none fits the template handed down from Antiquity so neatly as Gladiolus and
Iris. I suspect that Apollo’s beloved flower, the hyacinth of Graceo-roman myth, poetry and reality, could be any of several species in either of these two genera, depending on where you were in the Classical world and when.
In the 16th century, Europe’s plant experts were pitched into this literary sleuthing by the arrival of a strange species from Turkey. A bulb with spikes of starry, waxy and lavishly fragrant flowers in sky to lapis blue; it was very like something described by the Imperial Roman physician and botanist Dioscorides some 1,500 years earlier. He had called it hyakinthos.
As they scoured other Classical sources, our Renaissance men found related plants that were called the same or hyacinthus, but, they realised, none of these could be the hyacinth that was associated with Apollo’s Spartan companion: there were no letter-like markings on their petals. Rather, it seemed that the ancients had attached this name to such unlettered plants simply because
hyacinthus was also a general term for purple or blue things.
And so the quest began for the true identity of the legendary flower that sprang from the felled youth’s blood, the Poets’ Hyacinth.
Meanwhile, on the basis of Dioscorides’s authority, botanists gave the name Hyacinthus officially to the Turkish newcomer. It became
Hyacinthus orientalis, reflecting its origins in the Near East, then deemed the Orient. Its relations also became Hya
cinthus species; these included plants that are now classified as Scilla,
Muscari and Hyacinthoides. By the 1590s, the original azureflowered introductions of Hyacinthus
orientalis had been joined in elite English gardens by forms sent from Turkey that were variously white,
purple and early-blooming. In the next century, Europeans received others and began to develop their own cultivars, ‘amongst which,’ wrote an early aficionado, Sir Thomas Hanmer in 1659, ‘the rarest is the DOWBLE WHITE’.
Double flowers became the hyacinth beau idéal and the specialty of the Voorhelm family of Haarlem who, from the 1680s onwards, were Europe’s leading breeders. In 1753, George Voorhelm published A Treat
ise on the Hyacinth. It listed 244 double- and 107 single-flowered cultivars offered by their company.
That same year, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo completed his painting The
Death of Hyacinth. Like another 18th-century artist, Nicolas-rené Jollain, he depicted double white
H. orientalis at the youth’s side, not Gladiolus or Iris. But then Tiepolo also replaced Apollo’s lethal discus with tennis balls and racquet. Classical authenticity was one thing; fashionable modernity was all.
And, by now, H. orientalis cultivars were very fashionable indeed. Madame de Pompadour, for example, had legions of them forced for winter blooming inside Louis XV’S palaces.
It’s little wonder that connoisseurs paying a premium for bulbs wished to credit this species with the mythic and literary glamour that rightly belonged to the unrelated Poets’ Hyacinth.
As their availability increased, hyacinths fell victim to their own success. The market grew and choice diminished. In the 20th century, bestsellers with ever more corpulent and congested blooms displaced stately old styles and graceful ingénues. Like its compatriot the tulip, the hyacinth went from cult to craze to commonplace.
Happily, however, its story does accord with its namesake’s in one vital respect: the hyacinth is undergoing a rebirth. We are rediscovering the enchantment of vintage varieties and learning to appreciate them with the art lover’s eyes of their earliest admirers.
In large part, this is due to the vision and efforts of Alan Shipp, holder of the National Plant Collection of Hyacinths. No letters of lamentation mark the flowers that paint his Cambridgeshire fields; nor should they.
Fragrant rainbow: some of Alan Shipp’s National Collection
Occurring naturally from south-west Europe to the Near East, hyacinths have developed over the centuries into rich variations of colour and petal density. Below left: pink Double Delights. Below right: bluebell-like Perle Brilliant
Alan Shipp, custodian of many of the rarest hyacinths in the world, at work in his hyacinth field at Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire. From the mid 1980s, hyacinths began to take over from potato crops on his farm. The colourful crops gained a further boost in 1989, when he took over an existing National Hyacinth Collection of some 60 cultivars