Forcing hyacinths to bloom in water was a Victorian passion that fell out of favor in the twentieth century — perhaps because garden writers made the process seem more complicated and mysterious than it is. Hyacinth bulbs are exceptionally eager to bloom and will do so with only the slightest encouragement, providing a fragrant and long-lasting symbol of spring.
To force hyacinths, use pre-chilled bulbs that have received a cold treatment imitating winter. The best varieties for forcing are Dutch hyacinths such as the rose-pink ‘Lady Derby,’ the lilac-blue ‘Delft Blue,’ the deep-red ‘Jan Bos,’ and the pure-white ‘Carnegie.’ Dutch hyacinths are also great perennial bulbs for the garden. If you don’t like the formality of their tight blooms, remember that the blooms loosen over the years, a feature that Martha loves.
Store hyacinth bulbs in cool, damp sand until you are ready to force them. The bulbs will flower about 6 weeks after you put them in water, so if you need blossoms for an occasion, count backward to determine the planting time. This is not an exact science, so start plenty of bulbs over the course of 2 weeks to guarantee flowers for that special day.
1. Use forcing glasses, or choose containers that will hold the bulbs just above the water and allow room for the roots below, but won’t tip over when the big, heavy flowers arrive. Place a bulb on a vessel and add water until it reaches the bulb’s bottom. You’ll need to change the water twice a week by tipping the liquid out and replacing it with fresh lukewarm water.
2. Put the bulbs in a cool (40° F to 55° F), dark place until roots develop and leaves begin to sprout, about 3 to 4 weeks. Below 40° F, the bulbs will remain dormant. Above 55° F, they could rot. Basements and garages often provide the ideal conditions. Check the bulbs to be sure that the water level is high enough, and change the water periodically.
3. Once foliage begins to develop, move the bulbs to a slightly warmer (65° F), sunlit spot for flowering; a north-facing window is perfect. Turn them daily to prevent leaning, and change the water regularly. After about 2 weeks, you will have gorgeous perfumed flowers that will last (in a cool spot) another 2 weeks. Once the blooms have browned and died, throw out the bulbs. Water forcing uses every scrap of energy a bulb has to offer, so the bulbs will not re-bloom. If you want another round of blooms, order more bulbs; it’s a chance to try some different varieties.