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HYACINTH OR IRIS?
HYACINTHUS, beloved of Apollo, accidentally met death at the hands of that god, through the interposition of jealous Zephyr. Apollo, after grieving for his favourite, cried to his blood: "Thou shalt be a new flower inscribed with my lamentations!" and immediately after, "Behold the blood shed on the grass ceases to be blood, and a flower springs forth more beautiful than Tyrian dye, and takes the same form as the lily, save that the lily is silvery white and this is purple. Phoebus himself writes his own lamentations upon the petals, and Ai! Ai! is written upon the flower."
But it was very long ago when Ovid told this tale of the childhood of the world, and in the course of the centuries some names get lost and some misapplied; the question is, what flower is it that sprang from the dead boy's blood? A flower that is purple -- and the Greek purple, which included many shades of red -- was a colour in no way related to the French greys and violet blue that are all our hyacinths can show, but which is the colour of the common purple iris. A flower that was like a lily, which our hyacinth is not, excepting only the lily of the valley -- a solitary and most untypical lily in its way of blooming; but which an iris may be taken to be, seeing its long confusion and identification with the lilies of France. And a flower that memorialised the sun-god's grief, and was inscribed with signs of it: an inscription on the hyacinth is hard to seek, for though it is true some learned person has given the common wood hyacinth the surname Non-scriptus, what one, especially if one were a grower, would really like to see, is a hyacinth that is scriptus. The iris, on the other hand, has well-defined marks upon it, such as fancy can easily make sign-writing of sorts; which, indeed, fancy has so made in other tales -- the tale of their springing from Ajax's blood and bearing his name upon them, and the tale of their growing from the grave of the illiterate saint, and being marked with Ave Maria, the sole words of prayer he knew. From all of which it seems one must conclude that the flower called forth by Phoebus Apollo when Hyacinthus died was not what we call hyacinth now.
Not that hyacinths are not of respectable antiquity, quite as respectable as iris. Very long ago they must have made the wreaths at festivals and of bridesmaids in Greece, as they sometimes do to this day; very long ago the Persian poet sang his fancy --
Though in the latter case, when one thinks of the great hyacinths of the bulb growers, one feels them to be a rather unwieldy decoration for the "lovely head," and likely rather easily to be dislodged and fall to the "garden's lap." But the original Hyacinthus orientalis, parent of all our hyacinths, whether it came to us from Persia or from the other side of the Himalayas, as Parkinson's sub-name zumbul indi rather suggests, was a very different thing from the hyacinth of to-day. It was a very small, poor thing, not so good as a poor specimen of the white Roman hyacinth that blooms for us at Christmas. Even in Parkinson's time, when they had been cultivated in Europe for more than fifty years, they were very far from the present hyacinth, indeed nearer to the parent's standard. "They have," he says, "flowers of a fair bluish purple colour, and all standing many times on one side the stalk and many times on both." A hyacinth now that is not flowered equally all round is an unheard-of failure. And in number of florets, too, things are considerably altered; a writer at the end of the eighteenth century speaks of a fine hyacinth truss having from twenty to thirty bells; now the average is from fifty to sixty, and one specimen of the variety Jacques, bloomed in Haarlem, had one hundred and ten. All this, of course, is the consequence of careful selection and cultivation, selection and cultivation, and selection again, an art in which the Dutch growers excel, and which is more successfully manifested in the development of the hyacinth than in anything else.
Of all bulbs, hyacinths perhaps are the most typically Dutch; tulips may have the greater name, but other western nations have an interest in them and a tradition of them. We find them in our old memoirs and tales; we see them on the embroidered waistcoats of the beaux of Queen Anne's court, and among the enamelled toys of the late days of the French monarchy; they are figured in the prim paintings of our great-grandmothers and on the cups of Dresden and Lowestoft china; they even occur on the porcelain fragments that are discovered on the far-off African coast, though probably there they are of Dutch or Chino-Dutch origin. But a hyacinth, a big, full hyacinth, is essentially and entirely Dutch; its very type and standard of beauty is almost national, and nowhere else in the world can the bulb be produced in perfection. In Ghent and near Berlin, in the sandy Spree plain, it has been tried, but never with real success; the production of the true, fine, and perfect hyacinth bulb belongs to the Dutch growers alone.
The bulb, even now after all these years of cultivation, is no trifle to produce, no untended child of a summer's growth. It takes four years, and care and understanding, to raise a marketable hyacinth bulb; four years, or in some very propitious soils and circumstances, possibly three. There are two methods open to the grower who is producing hyacinths: either he slightly hollows the base of the bulb from which he wants increase, or else he cross-cuts it in several directions with cuts nearly half an inch deep. If he follows the latter course, he must bury the bulb after cutting for a week, so that the cuts may open and remain open. After that he will treat it as a hollowed bulb is treated, that is, leave it alone in the dry warmth of the barn, and in time there will appear between the layers innumerable young bulblets, of sizes varying from a grain of rice to a pea. One may sometimes see on the shelves of bulb barns the swollen and distorted parent bulbs, the young bulbs distending all their coats, waiting in the warmth for the time of planting. The parent, whether cut or hollowed, is planted whole in this state, when a proportion of the young bulbs take individual root and establish a separate existence. When in July the bulbs are taken out of the ground the young ones are found to be nice little bulbs of quite moderate proportions. Not yet, of course, of saleable size nor of the blooming age; they want more years of planting and lifting at the proper seasons before they are the substantial bulbs of commerce. They flower before that time, sometimes in the first but more often in the second year, but they have not come to perfection, and it is not till they are four years old that there may be expected the perfect, big, trussed flower.
Seeing the labour in production one wonders, not that hyacinths are "so dear," but rather that they are so cheap; also one feels that they are hardly treated with the respect they deserve in England. "They," so it is often complained here, "do so little good the second year, and the offset bulbs, when there are any, are so very poor." But why not? Why should not the offsets be poor? If under the hands of those who give time, and experience, and understanding, they are only good after so much labour, why should they be good without any trouble or labour at all? And for doing well a second year, a hyacinth is as other plants, it has its time of maturity, its gradual approach to it, and its decline: it takes four years to reach its finest under this treatment; afterwards it usually declines from it. The rate and style of the decline will vary, but it is not likely to be delayed by the treatment of the English amateur or in the English flower-bed. "It is," so an old grower once said, "as you may call the flower of one year, but what a flower! It requires four years to make it, then there is the Flower; after that -- it is nothing, usually I would not say thank you for it. Ah, but when it is there, it is indeed a Flower! One can respect that!"
In England hyacinths are not respected; the average English gardener now wants something by the hundred for the border, he does not want individuality. The old ladies who used to grow hyacinths in tall blue and green glasses treated them with more respect. Hyacinth glasses are not beautiful, yet one feels tenderly towards them for old sake's sake, -- the memories of drowsy hours spent stumbling over Easy Reading for the Young, in a room where the glasses stood on the windowsill when spring had dethroned the red sausage-shaped draught excluder, and the canary that hung between chirped as he peeped first at the white flower in the blue glass and then at the pink flower in the green, and possibly (at least in the stumbling reader's mind) speculated as to whether the ghostly roots to be seen through the glass were a rare and horrible specimen of worm. Those hyacinths were appreciated, the first opening of the flowers noted, the number of bells counted, the scent enjoyed with neighbours not similarly blessed with bulbs. Now we do not grow hyacinths in glasses. We, some people, grow them in pans, where they look very like a small flower-bed moved into the house. Six or eight "miniature hyacinths" (these are the immature offset bulbs of one or two years' growth) crammed in together, where, one would think, they must be very uncomfortable, though it does not prevent them from each producing a truss of flowers, smaller and looser certainly than that of a mature hyacinth, but giving satisfaction to the uninitiated. Some people grow hyacinths singly in pots, and stand them in rows on conservatory shelves or about their rooms, where they look well if the rooms are solidly Victorian, or furnished with beautiful specimens of cabinet-work in satinwood and tulipwood. Your hyacinth is no modern, no ornament for the furniture and rooms of nouveaux arts or culture, and it sorts very ill with half-toned æsthetics or the expensive pseudo-simple. Possibly that may account for its being rather out of fashion in England just now, where few people have a taste for the solidly Victorian, and fewer still the money for the old satinwood of the eighteenth century, or the exquisite tulipwood of France. Long ago it was different; seventeenth-century England admired hyacinths greatly, obtaining, then as now, all the really good ones from Holland, where already they were extensively cultivated. The price fetched by choice bulbs then was high, though never quite equal to that of tulips at the zenith of their fame. Report speaks of £200 being paid for a single hyacinth bulb in the middle of the seventeenth century; but by the end of eighteenth £25 was thought extravagant, even for a choice florist's variety. According to a writer in 1796, the price of ordinary bulbs then varied from 3d. apiece to, in rare cases, as much as £10. A fairly wide range, and one that is not so very dissimilar from that of the present time, though it is probable we now have a greater selection at 3d. and a smaller at £10.
Hyacinths in the bulb gardens of Holland are planted in September in very heavily manured ground. In the winter they have to be protected by a thick covering of straw, more, indeed, than is given to any bulbs except some of the lily family, usually from four to five inches in thickness. This is taken off in spring, when the crowns appear; it is essential that they should not be kept covered too long or too closely in mild weather, or the prematurely developed shoots will be too tender to stand the night frosts of early spring. Hyacinths are subject to some few diseases; one of them necessitates the removal of a suspected bulb from among its neighbours. Sometimes one may see a procession of men going forth to the hyacinth fields, each armed with a long narrow tool, in shape a little like the instrument used for cutting asparagus in Belgium; and also, if the weather is sunny, carrying an umbrella, an article much more used in Holland than in England. The procession, to which the umbrellas give something of dignity if not solemnity, moves slowly along a field, each man taking a row and examining the hyacinths one by one for signs of the disease. With his umbrella he shields the sun from his head and neck, the weather usually seems to be hot on these occasions; with his tool he neatly and cleanly lifts the suspected bulb from among its fellows.
Hyacinth flowers are cut off before their beauty is quite spent, so that they shall not come to seed. Generally speaking, no bulb of any sort is allowed to come to seed, unless of course that particular seed is wanted for the raising of new varieties; to produce seed greatly exhausts the bulb. Hyacinth flowers are cut close down to the leaves; sometimes the cut blooms are scattered over the ground, where other sorts of bulbs, as yet not showing shoots, are growing, this to prevent the light sandy soil from being blown away, leaving the bulbs beneath bare. Some few of the flowers are sold; some, I have heard it said, are used for manure; but the great bulk of them seem just a waste product. As yet nothing has been done with regard to extracting the scent from them, though one would almost have thought it had been worth while. Of course there would be difficulties in the way, the flowers have too much moisture to allow of their being steam-distilled, like roses and some other scent-providing flowers, and to pomade them, as violets are pomaded, would be rather a costly process.
The hyacinth Hyacinthus orientalis, though certainly the great man of the family, as parent of all that are commonly called hyacinths, is, after all, only one of a group. Parkinson gives forty-eight "iacinths," as he spells them. Some of them, it is true, would seem to be only varieties of the same kind, and some are things placed in other classes by modern florists. Still, even without these, a good many remain, and some at least are grown in the bulb gardens of Holland to-day. Grape hyacinths (Muscari, because they were supposed to smell of musk) are of these. They are a good deal grown in Holland, and are coming into much favour in England, no one knows why. Hyacinthus candicans is also grown in Holland. This, of course, is a newcomer from the Cape, unknown to Parkinson; its tall stalks and far-scattered white bells give it little resemblance in appearance to the rest of its relations. The wood hyacinth, Nutans, is also raised, but is usually to be found under the heading "Squills" in a grower's list. Parkinson classes it with his iacinths, where one would have thought it belonged, calling it Hyacinthus anglicus belgiciis. He also classes with them what he calls Scilla alba -- the common squill of the Mediterranean -- the great and important squill of old medicine, which, according to the herbalists, must have been good for everything, epidemic, accidental, and chronic, from worms to toothache, though most especially for consumptive diseases. "The Apothecaries prepare thereof both Wine, Vinegar and Oxymel or Syrupe, which is singular to exterminate and expectorate tough flegm, which is a cause of much disquiet to the body, and an hinderer of concoction, or digestion in the stomach, besides divers other wayes, wherein the scales of the roots being dried, are used. And Galen hath sufficiently explained the qualities and properties thereof, in his eight book of Simples." Pliny, doubtless, explained something of the same, for he, too, wrote of squills. So did that magnificent Dutchman, Clusius, who reports that when, in the true spirit of inquiry, he was about to make personal test of the Scilla rubra, he was stopped by the Spaniards, who assured him it was a most strong and potent poison. It is to be regretted that the Dutchmen of to-day do not grow the Scilla rubra, though perhaps it is not unreasonable, for, according to all accounts, it was not much to look at.
Among the flowers much more grown in Holland to-day than in former times iris stands well first. The iris, of course, is an old flower, even though it may have lost its first Greek name, and taken another after that rather overworked personage, the cutter of life's threads and rain-bringer, Juno's rainbow-winged messenger. Under various names the iris, whether tuberous or bulbous, has figured a good deal in history and legend. There has even been controversy about it, whether Shakespeare meant an iris or a lily when he spoke of fleur-de-lys in another than heraldic sense, and whether Chaucer did.
It is quite clear the old masters of medicine understood "fiower-de-luce" as iris, whether they spoke of "the bulbous blue kind" or the tuberous "flaggy kind," the white flag of Florence, from which they, as we, derived orris root, and the common yellow flag from which they derived other things which we do not. Their descriptions and receipts for mingling the extract with honey to mitigate the sharpness of its attack upon the stomach(!) have come down to us to convince us that they knew the iris; also that they, such of them as survived, were stouter men inside than their decadent descendants.
Of late years iris, dethroned from an honourable place in medicine, has come much into fashion as a garden flower. Not without reason, many sorts are easy for the amateur to cultivate, and all are very effective. The variety among them is enormous; not only are there in the hands of growers many comparatively new discoveries from North Africa, Central Asia, Asia Minor, and South Europe, but the improving and altering of all the families, new and old, has made the varieties wonderful both in number and beauty now. Large quantities of iris are grown in Holland, some of the rarer sorts and still more of the cheap and well-known kinds. In June one may see fields of Spanish Iris (Iris xiphion), exquisite, delicately-tinted flowers, quivering at the top of their grey-green stalks. Blooming, as they do, when most of the other bulb flowers are over, and when, in the early days of the industry, most of the fields must have been rather bare, they have a separate and special attraction. They are very nearly hardy bulbs, and withstand the winter's cold with little protection. They are little trouble in the growing, and are lifted at the end of July, when the greater number of other bulbs are already harvested. They increase fairly well, and the young ones have the further advantage of coming to maturity in a comparatively short time. New varieties, as is almost invariably the case with bulbs, are obtained from seed. One may often see small patches of new sorts, of which the grower has hope, flowering beside large quantities of the established kind, this for the sake of comparison, and to determine if the new is really new, and has anything worthy of preservation. The original bulb of Spain is said to have been blue flowered, the yellow influence coming from Portugal; but the crossing and blending of the two, whether started by art or nature, was begun too far back to be recorded. It is impossible to trace the history of many of the innumerable and beautiful shades and blends that exist now.
Iris anglica is another striking feature of the bulb gardens in early summer, coming into flower just when the Spanish are over, and presenting a more gorgeous and striking effect. It is a native of the Pyrenees, and no relation in root or anything else to the tuberous-rooted flag-irises of England. The Dutch growers had it, in the first instance, from English sailors or merchants, and either mistook its place of origin or named it after the nation from whom they received it. The flowers, with the extraordinary variety they show, their somewhat stiff method of growth and great development, are decidedly more typical of the nation of gardeners than of the nation whose name they bear.
Among the irises, both bulbous and tuberous, now grown in Holland I regret to say I have not been able to identify the iris of Clusius -- "Clusius his first great Flowerdeluce." "This Flowerdeluce hath divers long and broad leaves, not stiff like all the others, but soft and greenish on the upper side, and whitish underneath." The flower was "of a fair blue, a pale sky colour in most," and showed in the six lower petals a tendency to turn up at the edges, the three smaller and upper of these parting at the lip and standing up "like unto two small ears." The description of the flower reads a little like a Spanish Iris, and the native place was clearly Spain; but the leaves sound quite different to those of the Spanish as we know it, also the time of blooming is placed too early. The flower is described as very sweet of scent, and "the root is reasonable great." Doubtless, towards the close of the sixteenth century it was to have been seen blooming in the famous garden at Leyden; perhaps some descendants are still to be found in that city, yearly honouring the great man who named them, and helped to make the city famous. But in none of the gardens round Haarlem have I seen it, and in no grower's catalogue does it figure, at all events under its original name.
Irises, besides being among the latest of the bulb flowers, are almost among the earliest. In early March one may see Iris reticulata, Bakeriana, histroides, and a few other delicate - looking specimens blooming in surroundings which look singularly unsuitable to them. But these, as yet, are very little grown, are somewhat costly, and still in appearance something reminiscent of their Asiatic homes. None of them are recorded to be natives of Europe, although I myself have seen irises surprisingly like Iris reticulata, which were found by their present owner growing wild in Spain. They were, when I saw them, blooming under a north wall in a garden not far from the Scottish border, this in a March blizzard, and they had done so for some four years in succession. In colour, shape, and scent they were exactly like reticulata, but whether or no they were truly so I cannot say.
Among the more striking of the flowers to be seen in Holland now, Iris susiana certainly deserves mention. It is not a bulb iris but a spreading rhizome, in growth more like the Iris germanica, though in appearance quite unlike. It was introduced into Holland somewhere about 1570, and has been grown there practically without development or variation ever since, but the days of its market popularity are comparatively recent. Twenty years ago it is doubtful if there were fifty of the strange flowers (they look rather as if they were made of Japanese newspaper) to be found outside the Dutch gardens. Certainly in England they were then very little known. And yet Parkinson, writing in 1629, gives them an important place among the then known irises. There can be no doubt whatever that the Iris susiana of to-day is what he calls the Great Turkey Flowerdeluce, "the roots whereof," he tells us, "have been sent out of Turkey divers times among other things, and it would seem that they have had their original from about Sufis, a chief city of Persia." His description of flower tallies exactly, and he notes the peculiarity that the petals "being laid in water will colour the water into a violet colour, but if a little Allome be put therein, and then wrung or pressed, and the juice of these leaves dryed in the shadow, they will give a colour almost as deep as Indigo, and may be used for shadows in limning excellent well." The flower of the Iris susiana, if left in water or even allowed to rot in the ordinary way, produces a very strongly-coloured juice of a bluish violet tint. There really is no room to doubt that the two irises are the same, though how it happened that the then and now valued flower went so out of English cultivation, almost out of English knowledge, it is difficult to say. One imagines that there came a time when no one appreciated its "singularity and rarity " -- the only charms it has to offer -- and it was allowed to die out. Without care, of course, it would not thrive or increase. It seldom bears seeds in these colder countries, and the very few that are occasionally borne never ripen. And it would hardly have increased by spreading, -- as a rhizome if left undisturbed for long it would always die in the centre of every clump it formed, only living at the edges, and in an unpropitious climate and circumstances it would speedily dwindle away. Anyhow, it would seem to have happened, the Great Turkey Flowerdeluce left us, to return Iris susiana many years later, when the tide of taste, which has changed many things and relegated the formerly admired hyacinth to a secondary place, has put all irises into fashion, and exalted this neglected flower to favour and admiration. Such a fate has occurred before this to flowers and books and men; to the books it matters little, they have time to ripen; to the men -- post cineras gloria sera venit.
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