Alan Shipp: The Noah of Hyacinth Bulbs

Britain’s only hyacinth farmer is preserving rare bulb cultivars for flower lovers everywhere—no ark needed.

  • Alan Shipp curates the U.K.'s National Hyacinth Collection on land about 70 miles north of London.
    Photo by Paul Marriott
  • 'Gloria Mundi' is the oldest cultivar in Alan Shipp's collection, dating back to 1767.
    Photo by
  • The 'Prins Albert von Preussen' hyacinth illustrated in a French journal, circa 1861.
    Photo by Internet Archive/Biodiversity Heritage Library
  • 'L'Ophir' is the world's first documented double yellow hyacinth, introduced in 1770.
    Photo by
  • 'Dreadnought' hyacinth.
    Photo by
  • 'Roman Dark Blue' hyacinth.
    Photo by
  • 'Grand Blanche Imperiale' hyacinth.
    Photo by
  • 'Gigantea' hyacinth.
    Photo by
  • 'King of the Blues' hyacinth.
    Photo by
  • 'Oranje Boven' hyacinth.
    Photo by

Most of us encounter hyacinths in the dark, colorless season of late winter. Our attention is grabbed in a shop by bulbs forced to bloom in soilless glass jars and — desperate for any hint of spring — we pay too much for their color and fragrance. After a few days of enjoying the distinctive scent, we toss the spent bulbs into the trash.

Considering how we treat hyacinths these days, it’s probably just as well that stores sell us only the simplest blooms. A mere century and a half ago, though, gardeners could draw from a pool of more than 2,000 hyacinth cultivars in an array of colors, some with multicolored blossoms and doubled petals. That number has fallen to a few hundred cultivars today, and modern gardeners would be hard-pressed to find even 20 in nursery catalogs. Thankfully, Englishman Alan Shipp is working to bring back overlooked and neglected hyacinth bulbs. Known as “The Noah of Hyacinths” in heirloom bulb circles, Alan curates the U.K.’s National Hyacinth Collection on a parcel of land about 70 miles north of London. His plots host close to 250 cultivars from around the world — the largest holding of rare hyacinths in existence. The collection spans roughly half an acre and encompasses an estimated 100,000 bulbs. The oldest cultivar, ‘Gloria Mundi,’ dates back to 1767. The newest is one of Alan’s own creation, a yet unnamed hybrid honoring a husband who nursed his wife back to health after a cancer diagnosis.

The bulbs of Hyacinthus orientalis, also known as Dutch hyacinth or garden hyacinth, first break the soil’s surface with a few wide leaves. Then, the plant sends up a tall raceme, which supports a series of strongly scented blossoms that cascade from a rounded crown. Hyacinths’ season is short, about two weeks, but as Alan says, “There’s no other flower that can give you this range of colors at the end of March.”

Sheltered by the rich alluvial soil along the River Cam, Alan’s collection is near the village of Waterbeach on the North Sea coast. Archeologists have uncovered many Roman ruins around Waterbeach. Although there’s no evidence the Romans brought hyacinths to the area, their epic poets certainly wrote about them. In Aeneid, Virgil describes “a drooping hyacinth, whose brightness and beauty have not yet faded.” Virgil knew the Greek legend — that the flower hyacinthos sprang up from the ground where the youth Hyacinthus’ blood was spilled by Apollo.

Although not as ancient as the Roman era, Alan’s family ties are deep in the soil of Waterbeach. He’s the third generation to farm the same property. His grandfather first grew fruits and vegetables there at the turn of the 20th century, and Alan’s father continued to farm the land and also imported produce for sale at local markets. Shortly after Alan took over the family land, he realized the small acreage in vegetables couldn’t compete with modern demands of production. In about 1985, he began searching for other ways to make a living. That’s how he encountered hyacinths.

“It was just sheer chance,” Alan says. “There was a clearance sale at a bulb nursery on the other side of Cambridge. I bought 20 each of five different hyacinth cultivars and planted them. I had always been a very keen gardener.”



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