Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, this is, of course, a garden plant which pops up all over the place in churchyards and close to habitation, but what a pretty one! The tiny flowers, each the colour of lapis lazuli, are delicately fringed with white, and remind me a little of old-fashioned lady’s bloomers. The name ‘muscari’ comes from the Greek word muskos and refers to the scent, although it is not to everyone’s taste – another name for the garden grape hyacinth is ‘starch hyacinth’, as some people thought that it smelled like wet laundry.
Grape hyacinths are not technically hyacinths at all, but belong to the same family as asparagus, bluebells and lily of the valley. Like bluebells, they will spread far and wide if the conditions are to their liking, and in my experience they are some of the easiest of bulbs to persuade to naturalise and to come back year after year. Plus, they provide an early source of nectar for pollinators, and I have often seen them visited by early solitary bees and hoverflies.
What I did not know, however, was that in addition to the garden grape hyacinth that we see everywhere, the UK has its own native grape hyacinth (Muscari neglectum). This is a very rare plant, found mainly in Breckland, and has flowers that are a deep dark blue, almost black. The smaller, bluer flowers at the top are sterile.
In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey tells of one important site for Muscari neglectum at Lakenheath in Suffolk, a place now know mostly for its air-base. One area of grassland which was full of native grape hyacinths was levelled to make concrete areas for storing bombs. When the site was dismantled in the 1960’s the plants returned, and until the 1970’s, when the area was once again flattened for housing, thousands of the bulbs flowered every year. Suffolk locals apparently call the plants ‘grey parsons’, and if you try to say grape hyacinth with a Suffolk accent, you’ll see why.
The garden grape hyacinth is a native of the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece and Turkey to the Caucasus (hence the species name armeniacum). In Greek and Italian cookery, the bulbs are considered a delicacy (although they are poisonous), and are either preserved or pickled in oil after being boiled. I wonder if they are used like pickled onions, to add a certain savour to cheese or cooked meat? According to the ever-interesting Plant Lives website, grape hyacinth bulbs are believed to stimulate appetite.
So, this little bulb, which cheerfully goes about its business with little intervention from us is a real winner in pots or containers, or at the edge of a bed of daffodils. However, in the famous Keukenhof bulb gardens in the Netherlands, they celebrate the garden grape hyacinth by creating a ‘blue river’ which meanders through the park, edged here by white narcissus. A bit over the top, for sure, but breathtaking nonetheless. I think I must redouble my efforts with bulbs next year. If only mine looked these, I would be a happy woman.
Photo One – By This photo was taken by Ryan Bushby(HighInBC) with his Canon PowerShot S3 IS. To see more of his photos see his gallery.
Photo Two – © Hans Hillewaert / , via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three – By Tom Jutte https://www.flickr.com/photos/hereistom/8072659107
All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer