“If, of thy mortal goods, thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves
alone to thee are left,
Sell one & from the dole,
Buy Hyacinths to feed the soul”
– Muslihuddin Sadi, 13th Century Persian Poet
Hyacinth was a Spartan Prince of outstanding beauty, lover of Apollo and beloved of Zephyr, the warm west wind. However Zephyr was jealous of Hyacinth’s good looks and his love of Apollo and killed him by blowing the discuss Apollo threw to Hyacinth off course, so it struck his head. Apollo refused to let Hades claim his soul and instead turned Hyacinth’s blood into a flower, staining the petals with his own tears. Scholars spoil it rather by identifying the iris as the flower in this tale, rather than our modern hyacinth.
For me, despite their intoxicating scent, the hyacinth is not a flower of lust, jealousy and death, but a flower to brighten Winter with the promise of a new year and a new spring. When grown inside and forced in the autumn they flower around New Year’s, filling the gap left by the removal of Christmas decorations and lighting the room like candles.
Hyacinths are also an integral part of the Persian New Year on the Spring Equinox 21st March, when the bulbs naturally flower. They form part of the Haft-Seen, the symbolic table setting of Nowruz- which translates as ‘New Day’, where they symbolize fertility and ‘the continuous chain of human progeny’.
Another common feature of my New Year, shared I suspect with many others, is the unfulfilled vow of keeping a diary. I always lose momentum when I read my attempts back, and realise how very dull my diary keeping is. I sadly have not the gift of infusing the day’s events with the humour that characterises the Diary of a Provincial Lady. After the romance of the Greek myth of Hyacinths, the Diary of a Provincial Lady has a very British, prosaic, take on them.
‘Notice, and am gratified by, appearance of large clump of crocuses near the front gate. Should like to make whimsical and charming reference to these… but am interrupted by Cook, saying that the Fish is here, but he’s only brought cod and haddock and the haddock doesn’t smell any too fresh, so what about cod? Have often noticed that Life is like that.’
The Diary of a Provincial Lady is the wonderfully funny story of a lady living with her family in the rural west-country between the wars. The Provincial Lady herself suffers all sorts of trials and tribulations, especially with her hyacinth bulbs, not least of which, she only plants them in November. The time you plant hyacinths depends really on when you want them to flower, and on the cultivar. The start of October is a good time to plant them if you want them to flower just after Christmas, which is when I like mine to flower, to dispel any post-Christmas gloom.
After planting, they want to be kept someone cool, dry and dark. The Provincial Lady struggles to find a suitable location for hers: ‘Finish the bulbs and put them in the cellar. Feel that after all cellar is probably draughty, change my mind and take them all up to the attic.’ Once in the attic they are promptly trodden on by Robert, her husband, while he is retrieving suitcases. ‘Take a look at bulb-bowls on returning suitcases to the attic, and am inclined to think it looks as though the cat had been up here. If so, this will be the last straw.’ I generally keep mine in a dark cupboard, safely away from marauding cats and relations.
|White Hyacinths in a Landscape by Becky Bland|
If these tales of disaster have put you off growing hyacinths, they really are very easy, which is really the joke of the P.L. struggling with hers. The Lady’s condescending neighbour, Lady B, has no such troubles with hers. ‘Count at least a dozen Roman hyacinths growing in bowls all over the drawing-room. (Probably grown by one of the gardeners, whatever Lady B. may say).’
Two years ago when I was on a course in Vienna, homesickness took the form of a sudden inexplicable craving for bowls of white hyacinths. Ever since then I’ve grown them for Christmas, and they brighten and scent the rather gloomy farmhouse for weeks. This year I brought two bowls of them to London with me, and they cheered up my first week of the New Year back at work, proving that they really are food for the soul.
When I came to research this article, I discovered, to my horror and delight, that Jilly Cooper had written almost exactly what I wanted to say, several years ago. Horror because I would now have to think of something else to say, but delight because who can resist a favourite author writing about a favourite book. And it would be churlish of me not to share the link to it: