Grape Hyacinths: Small Scented Wonders of Spring
No group of plants does “adorable” and “blue” better than grape hyacinths. Most gardeners know these captivating little bulbs by way of Muscari armeniacum and its allies, whose elfin spires of chubby blue flowers do indeed resemble tiny bunches of grapes. But there’s another, equally delightful side to the Muscari tribe, with numerous species that are not at all grape-like in bloom. Botanists often split these non-grapey species into their own genera, but in the gardening world, the entire bunch are still known as Muscari.
Garden Muscari possess several virtues in addition to their cute quotient. They’re hardy and long-lived, surviving many years in a sunny to partly shaded site with average to well-drained soil. They bloom during the height of spring, providing a cool azure contrast to tulips, spring anemones, primroses, daffodils, and other splashy spring-bloomers. Additionally, many of them naturalize readily, seeding themselves around the garden or multiplying by offsets. Give these naturalizing types a cottage garden, mixed border, or another informal setting, and they’ll pop up obligingly here and there in all their adorable blueness. Gardeners looking for something less rambunctious have many other Muscari to choose from.
Grape Hyacinth Species and Varieties
Muscari of all types typically produce grassy leaves that break ground in late summer and last through the following spring. Neatnik gardeners sometimes take issue with their near-evergreen leaves, as well as their persistent spent flower spikes. Both the foliage and the flowers can be easily pulled and discarded after they go brown.
Rambunctious Grape Hyacinths
Grape hyacinth season begins with the petite, summer-sky-blue spikes of azure grape hyacinth (Muscari azureum, aka. Pseudomuscari azureum, USDA Hardiness Zones 5-8). The little bell-shaped blooms open sequentially from the bottom to the top of the conical flower clusters, peaking in early spring. This little sprite is a moderate to enthusiastic self-sower. It also comes in a charming (and more slowly proliferating) white form, ‘Album’.
As spring reaches its zenith, so does that grapiest of grape hyacinths, Armenian grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8). The standard version of this eastern European native produces miniature steeples of bead-like, bright blue, white-lipped flowers, poised on 8-10-inch stems. The species has also yielded a number of outstanding cultivars. Among the most noteworthy are the white-flowered ‘Argaei Album’, the ethereal pale lavender-blue ‘Valerie Finnis’, and double-flowered ‘Blue Spike’ with shaggy clusters that resemble a blue broccoli rabe rather than a bunch of grapes. It also departs from the norm by not producing seedlings. In contrast, most other forms of Muscari armeniacum belong to the rambunctious side of the grape hyacinth tribe, self-seeding readily.
Less Rambunctious Grape Hyacinths
Several less rambunctious species with grape-like blooms are also sometimes listed in bulb catalogs. Broad-leaved grape hyacinth (Muscari latifolium, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8) is a bicolored beauty with a spike of mostly deep-purple “grapes” topped by a contrasting crest of bright blue flowers. It’s an excellent choice for garden areas where a well-behaved grape hyacinth is more appropriate. So, too, are Muscari armeniacum look-alikes Muscari aucheri and Muscari botryoides. Keep in mind, however, that some alleged cultivars of these species are actually selections or hybrids of Muscari armeniacum, and may exhibit its behavior. Even more rambunctious is Muscari neglectum, which is the garden equivalent of a midnight-blue Muscari armeniacum with aggression issues.
Rare Grape Hyacinths
In contrast, members of the non-grapey side of the Muscari clan (with the exception of Muscari azureum) tend to be relatively late-blooming and well-behaved. Regrettably, many of them are scarce in commerce. Perhaps the queen of the tribe is Muscari pallens (USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8), which – as its botanical name suggests – bears bell-flowered spikes of a pale, icy, grotto-blue. Chalus grape hyacinth (Muscari chalusicum, aka. Pseudomuscari chalusicum, USDA Hardiness Zones 5-8) is a lovely little thing as well, with its abbreviated steeples of pale-blue bells. The so-called tassel hyacinths, on the other hand, are more of a curiosity, producing columns of rather dull fertile flowers topped with blue, electroshock fringes of hair-like sterile blooms. Most gardeners know the tassel hyacinths by way of Muscari comosum, which is widely available from bulb merchants. So, too, is its even more peculiar cultivar ‘Plumosum’, in which the hair-like sterile blooms have taken over the entire flower cluster. The wild frizzy dusky-purple dusters suggest some sort of weird benthic lifeform.
Also departing drastically from the grape hyacinth norm are several species – including Muscari muscarimi and Muscari macrocarpum – that bear columnar spikes of intensely sweet-scented blooms in shades of yellow. Hailing from the eastern Mediterranean, they’re the least hardy of the genus, surviving to USDA Zone 6 if provided ample sun and relatively dry soil. They’re particularly well-suited for growing or forcing in containers. For that matter, all grape hyacinths are perfect for forcing.
Plant grape hyacinths containers in late fall in Fafard® Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix, with the tips of the bulbs at or just above the surface. Water the pots, place them in a cold but not freezing location such as an enclosed porch, heated cold frame, or attached garage, and lightly re-water whenever the top inch of the potting mix completely dries. Move the pots indoors to a cool sunny location after the bulbs are well rooted and pushing plump shoots. In a few weeks, you’ll be enjoying bunches of grape hyacinths. You’ll also get to savor the mild sweet fragrance of the more subtly scented species – something that often escapes notice in the garden.
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