Hyacinthus ‘Blue Festival’

Let’s talk about fickle fashion. Let’s discuss our hunger for big and beefy. and then let’s mourn the slipping away of Hyacinth ‘Blue Festival’. Maybe I’m the only one left on earth that prefers loose, multi-stemmed hyacinths that hold their flowers neatly upright rather than the hefty, bulky, hubba-hubba hyacinths with foxtail fat flowers that don’t perennialize well and topple over due to the dead weight of their cotton candy-like flower blobs. But I suspect that the reason why the Festival series (there was white and pink as well as blue) didn’t sell well was because no one knew it existed.

So here I am, trying to drum up a fan club for a hyacinth that only seems to still be offered by White Flower Farm (www.whiteflowerfarm.com) and no one else (if you know otherwise, clue me in). Because, in the cheerleading department, I’m in the front lines. Two years ago, I installed Hyacinth ‘Blue Festival’ on a banking by the road — a berm that possesses quite possibly the world’s worst soil and driest conditions.

It is visited regularly by sanding trucks during snow storms. Your occasional drunk swerves over it. In other words, this berm boasts all the horrors of every hellstrip and then some. In fact, other hellstrips salute mine for raising the bar — it makes other hellstrips look like heaven. That’s where I stuck these hyacinths — where daffodils die and junipers fear to tread. And they’ve multiplied. No, really. They are blooming out there right now in combination with some thready vinca and they are brilliant.

Okay, so their blossom count doesn’t compare to most modern hybrids. And they have shorter stems (which means they don’t flop). But they’re multi-stemmed in the tradition of old-fashioned Roman hyacinths (you know I love old-fashioned). Then there’s the blue — it takes a piece of the sky, or the ocean, or a lap pool and brings it down to earth. [Funny how the light changes the color of these flowers for the camera when I’m not doing a close-up.] Plus, they linger longer in prime condition despite drought, weird unseasonably warm weather, and probably regular applications of dog pee. For that reason (and because I’m not keen on getting run over by a car), I haven’t done conclusive nose testing for fragrance. Brief nostril applications (wearing a neon safety vest) came up with a light aroma — which is a relief compared to the bordello-like scent of its more buxom kin. If anyone else is growing these — fill me in on the fragrance factor from your nose’s perspective.

This brings me to a favorite refrain of mine. Don’t you think that we could poke retailers into offering a plant if we demand it loud and clear? If we flex our collective consumer muscle, surely the industry will respond. Right?

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18 Responses to Hyacinthus ‘Blue Festival’

  1. Corey says:

    Hi Tovah, thank you for profiling one of my new favorite spring bulbs! I just posted a review of these very plants on PlantFiles on Dave’s Garden only a couple of days ago, so I am thrilled and surprised to see you write about them. Last fall, I planted 480 Blue Festival, all obtained from Van Engelen (their sister company Scheepers also sells them for slightly more money). I absolutely agree that these are far superior to regular hyacinths in every way.

    As for their lack of popularity, I also believe it is because people simply have no idea they exist. And yet in the UK, all three Festival colors (blue, white and pink) were given Awards of Garden Merit. Does this mean they are more popular across the pond? I have no idea.

    Since I was able to enjoy 480 of them blooming in my small urban fenced in back yard this spring (they are now almost finished in this freakishly warm spring), I can say that they definitely do have a wonderful fragrance. But it is a lighter and more sophisticated perfume than that of its stiff, uptight Dutch cousins, just as they are lighter and more sophisticated garden plants.

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Now you’ve given me hope! I went to the Van Engelen site and they were listed as Sold Out for the autumn, so I assumed they were no longer stocking them. I was looking at my little league and thinking that they will have to increase by themselves — but now I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and hope that it’s only a temporary shortage — especially given their success in the UK. Meanwhile, I’m keeping the image of 480 of them in my mind’s eye. I force the more buxom hyacinths in winter — and they are perfect winter companions (all except the fragrance, which is over the top). In the garden, they just don’t fit with the subtle scene.

  2. Tovah, I’m not fond of the fat hyacinths; these would be much better. Consider this another vote for commercializing the Festival series.

    • Tovah Martin says:

      So delighted to hear from you, Prof. How is the spring progressing in Kansas? My friends in Des Moines report that they’re riding the same steamroller that we’re experiencing in New England. You, too? I really think that you could safely invite the Festival gang into a natural garden and they’d be perfectly at home. Doesn’t it seem as though sometimes the breeders create creatures that are too “precious” to fit anywhere?

  3. Corey says:

    Yes, Van Engelen definitely sold them last fall (2011). What you see online now is still the remnant of their Fall 2011 catalogue and all prices listed are at the end-of-season 50% discount. I think they are one of the last bulb houses to update their website each year. Needless to say, Blue Festival sold out by the beginning of October last season (I know because I bought the last of their stock), then followed by White Festival not long after. They still had some very small quantities of Pink Festival for their end-of-season sale. Van Engelen and Scheepers put the words “Limited Supply” with the descriptions of all three Festival cultivars, which hints that maybe only one or two growers in Holland even produce it.

    I did not plant either White Festival or Pink Festival last year, since no genus does that wonderful, chameleon-like, almost prismatic “hyacinth blue” color better than hyacinths! I love how it changes with the varying light.

    Probably another reason for their lack of popularity: they are at least twice as expensive as regular hyacinths. I invested in them because of rumors of excellent perennializing and multiplication ability, even in normal, summer-irrigated garden conditions. However, since they are not marketed well (or at all, depending on how you look at it), I am sure most gardeners would choose to buy 30 Dutch hyacinths for $30 rather than 10-15 Blue Festival for the same amount. Such a shame…

    • Tovah Martin says:

      It is a shame, and as I remember, the photograph didn’t do them justice. Thank you for the heads up on Van Engelen’s website. Since the other catalogs are pouring in, I just assumed they were thinkin’ 2012. Silly me. I feel they’re worth the extra money for a bulb that actually will perennialize. I guess it’s a value thing. And I’m sure you’re with me on this.

      But all last night I wondered = so what sort of venue did you put those 480 Blue Festival hyacinths in? I went to bed with visions of hundreds of blue blossoms dancing in my head, and I’m savoring it. But I’m hungry to know more…

      I think that I might have a few bulbs of ‘White Festival’ tucked elsewhere given to me in a white bulb freebie. They aren’t as dramatic — much shorter stems, just a few flowers per stem — although they might work as an accent to the blue.

  4. Corey says:

    I planted all of them in my small urban Chicago back yard, kind of as an edging around existing beds but really mostly strewn here and there in a rough-and-tumble wildflowery fashion. Before my partner and I actually even bought a property, I had done research to see which bulbs I would like to plant our first fall. (Yes, I am pretty much nuts.) I had always loved the idea of the old blue Roman hyacinths, but I could not find any consistent hardiness information for them. Plus,the only source I could find for them, Old House Gardens, charged an arm and a leg, something ridiculous like $12 per bulb. So, in walked Blue Festival into my life and it has turned into an instant spring love affair.

    Because I am just a bit tacky at heart and really wanted to wow the neighbors this first spring, I had the idea of interspersing the Blue Festival hyacinths, with their soft colors, with daffodils of a glaring golden yellow-orangey shade. So I got another 400 bulbs of ‘Tete-a-Tete’ and put these all over the back garden too. You know, that lovely little thing that is used for forcing all winter and is supposedly “common” but yet you never see it planted anywhere? Well, long story short, the combination was stunning. My partner’s jaw dropped, all of the neighbors’ jaws dropped and my own tacky-loving jaw dropped. Luckily, I have a postage stamp-sized piece of land where 400 bulbs can blanket about half the space. And I was especially lucky because my supplier–also Van Engelen in this case–provided me with mostly triple nosed bulbs which tripled the impact. Some even had quadruple noses which were awkward honkers to plant.

    Now my neighbors keep asking “What next? What next?” I do have some tricks up my sleeve, but I am waiting to see how it turns out. It is amazing, though, how people tend to overlook bulbs when they add so much value to a property. People would rather plant 1000 petunias before they would even think of planting one bulb. How sad.

    I have a couple of early bumblebees who are still foraging among the remaining hyacinth blossoms every day. Hopefully they will decide my backyard is a happy place and settle nearby. It is so cheerful to see bees working in the garden!

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Okay, it’s unanimous, Corey. We all want you to move into our neighborhood. Preferably next door. Talk about coming in with bells on. You’re dang right – this is going to be a hard act to follow. (And what a Cinderella story for ‘Tete-a-tete.) But from the sounds of it, you’ve got it all under control, even budget-wise.

      I absolutely agree — bulbs are a great value, as long as you seek the types that rodents don’t pester. I thought that alliums were pretty much bulletproof, but not this year. And I even put in oyster shells while planting. So far, that method has been my saving grace. No more. Now I’m resorting to castor oil. But I’m thinking that when you plant anything in the 480 range, the rodents are going to leave a few for you. And do I remember correctly that hyacinths are poisonous?

      So keep us abreast of the latest developments in Chicago’s newest glittering prize. I figure that right about now, they’re carrying you on their shoulders…

      So keep us

      • Corey says:

        Tovah, I am flattered by your kind words and encouragement, especially since you are one of my all-time favorite garden writers.

        I find it so strange (in a good way) that we all seem to have bulbs on the brain lately. This past weekend I started to reread “The Little Bulbs” by Elizabeth Lawrence because, although I enjoy my big, eye-popping daffodils and hyacinths, it is probably the so-called minor bulbs that I love even more. Even before I decided to do the Blue Festival/Tete-a-Tete combo, I decided to put in small clumps of three of my favorites here and there: Eranthis hyemalis, Chionodoxa sardensis and Scilla siberica. No more than 50 tiny bulbs of any one kind (budget constraints…sigh). But I am delighted to see that the survivors are busy ripening seed pods. I am thinking of putting in several hundred of each this fall.

        In terms of rodents, the bane of my urban existence at the moment is squirrels. They destroy and eat everything in sight, yet people around here keep insisting they are cute and continue to feed them, on purpose! I probably couldn’t throw a hybrid tulip bulb in any random direction without hitting at least 5 of them at any one time. (In case you are wondering, a species tulip bulb might be too precious to waste on throwing at squirrels.) That was another reason for choosing hyacinths and daffodils. Squirrels hate them–foliage, bulbs, flowers and all. And an enemy of my enemy is my friend…

        As for alliums, I must admit that I have a true, insane, utter weakness for them. They are one of my top 5 plant genera. I also planted them by the hundreds last fall (shhh…don’t tell anyone!). Supposedly they are generally rodent proof, but it seems that some species have less of the repellant “onion” scent than others. A case in point, Allium christophii. This lovely species is only very mildly onion scented at best. I was shocked to find that the evil squirrel brigade had discovered my A. christophii and were digging up the bulbs, chewing off the basal plates and discarding the rest. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I don’t know how they got to them since I tried to bury them deeply (at least 6 inches). Now, had they even thought of touching any of my newly planted lilies, I would have started breathing fire!

        I was reminded, while reading “The Little Bulbs,” of a passage from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden” that says of bulbs:

        “They’re things as helps themselves. That’s why poor folks can afford to have ’em. If you don’t trouble ’em, most of ’em’ll work away underground for a lifetime an’ spread out an’ have little ‘uns.”

        Now, if only more people, rich and poor alike, could afford to have bulbs we would be living in a very different world!

        • Tovah Martin says:

          No, the reason why you didn’t hurl a species tulip at that squirrel is because you knew he’d just catch it in his greedy little mouth, gobble it up, and go looking for its buried kin. LOVE Burnett’s quote — wonderful! And I’ll recite it to the bulbs this summer when they should be getting busy having “little ‘uns.”

          Using your comparison with petunias and other bedders, it seems to me that bulbs are a very economical way to garden. And gardening isn’t a luxury, it’s survival. Granted, sometimes it seems as though I’m throwing money to the wind with hybrid tulips = but that’s my one indulgence. Alas, lilies are no longer in my stars thanks to lily beetle. I love them, they used to love me, but now we’ve got a triangle going with the beetles…

          • Corey says:

            Lily beetles…I feel your pain. I am dreading the day they make it out here!

          • Tovah Martin says:

            Being the optimist I am, I would say that maybe this will be the year without lily beetles — except that they’ve already converged. I found a swarm ravaging my fritillarias…

  5. Heidi S. says:

    Hi Tovah! I like these and I have always sworn that I would never plant a hyacinth! I can’t stand the smell or look of the frilly ones, but this may make me reconsider. They might look nice with my daffodils and tulips (flaming purissima per your recommendation). I will have to keep an eye out for these in the fall. I see that Brent and Becky’s (where I buy most of my bulbs) use to carry these but it looks like they are no longer available since I believe that there 2012 fall catalog is already online and they are listed as discontinued. Here is a picture of my tulips which are now almost done blooming here:


    • Tovah Martin says:

      Honest Heidi, I would be standing right beside you in the Hyacinth Haters lineup. But I hardly think of these as hyacinths. I sort of bought them “on probation” — can’t even remember why I gave them a chance. And now I’m totally hooked. Corey (below) says that Van Engelen will have them in their new catalog. Even the scent is toned down. I see that your turkestanica tulips are happening (I LOVE your house!). Only one of my species tulips is open so far — but my ‘Flaming Purissima’ is poised – what are we on now? Year 3? I tried the cutest little species type this year as a forcer — T. ‘Little Beauty’ – 3 flowers per stem. Love it. I might have to give it a whirl outdoors.

  6. Dear Tovah,
    Thank-you for your beautiful blog and books! I am at this moment smelling a hyacinth formerly unknown to me which I believe is called ‘Purple Voice’. I say I believe it is ‘Purple Voice’ because I purchased it among dozens of other purple hyacinths of the typical ‘Blue Pearl’ sort but it came up …different. It is a more vibrant, warmer, pink-purple. Could it be ‘Queen of the Violets’??
    Why I wanted to mention this plant is because it has a different fragrance. It is spicy, refined, begs to be sniffed again and again. Its fragrance is perceptable among the chorus of other hyacinths blooming today. It totally different from the strong ‘Blue Pearl’ type hyacinths, and the merely green smelling pale pink sort. I thought you might enjoy this one for forcing. I know you have a love/hate relationship with the scents of certain bulbs.
    I was hoping you could confirm the spicy sweet hyacinth as “Purple Voice”, but if you cannot, perhaps you will try it out this fall. I will be ordering at least a few, and will take special care of the bulbs that I have for comparison. One last note – their unique coloration makes an electric combination with the more traditional “Blue Pearl” type.

    Best wishes,

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Talk about discovering buried treasure, Matt! A hyacinth that you can live intimately with! And to think that it just found its way to you, like a character in a Charles Dickens novel. I’m game. Making a note to order both ‘Purple Voice’ (what a name!) and ‘Queen of the Violet’. It’s worth a fling. I was just lecturing at White Flower Farm last weekend = and even though most foxtail hyacinths look overpumped to me, they have a border of the combinations that they sell and they were sumptuous. But what I really liked best was the ‘Festival White’ in their white border. Even as it faded, it looked smart. As a forcer, though, I would go with the foxtail types. Thank you for your kind words, Matt, they mean the world to me.

  7. Corey says:

    I just checked Van Engelen’s website and they state they will have their updated list for Fall 2012 ready on May 14. Let’s see if they continue to carry the Festival hyacinths! I received excellent bulbs (hyacinth, narcissus and allium) from them last year.

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Thank you, Corey! Hear that everyone? Mark your calendars, warm up your clicking finger and have it poised over the order button. This will be a race for the Festival hyacinths — let the best bulb fanatic win. I promise a new blog soon — I’ve been on the road lots, you’ll see the fruits of my labors on the newsstands coming up soon!

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