‘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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Clive Ni­chols

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

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