by Carol Wallace
I love haunting antique shops and auctions to find containers and cache pots for my plants. You can find all kinds of interesting things that you just don't see anywhere else.
One of the things I found that most intrigued me was a glass vessel with an interesting shaped neck, sort of like a modified hourglass with an open top. The antiques dealer told me it was called a hyacinth glass.
Now I'm used to glass being named for all kinds of things. Cobalt glass, depression glass, Dorflinger glass, custard glass and - Heisey? At first I thought the dealer meant Heisey. But no - she meant hyacinth. This was a special glass that used to be used to force hyacinths to grow without using soil.
I guess it was the old-fashioned precursor of hydroponics.
Intrigued as I was by the little vase I bought it and took it home. I had great difficulty believing that I could grow something without dirt and fertilizer.
And - believe it or not - I could! Not only hyacinths, but paperwhite narcissus, too!
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Now one lone hyacinth in a glass can look pretty lonesome, and I prefer to make a bigger splash with my indoor plants, so I started looking around and discovered that I could also use small jars if the openings were also tiny. The point of a forcing glass is that it will hold the bottom of the bulb away from the water. A bulb sitting directly in water tends to rot - but if the basal plate on the bulb sits just barely out of the water's reach, it will start to send down roots, and eventually send up a bloom.
It's probably a good idea to get your bulbs first if you can't find a traditional forcing glass, and then check to se what you have that might work. Try horseradish jars, baby food jars - or (and here's the good news!) you can now buy the traditional forcing glasses at many nurseries and mail order companies.
If you are going to be traditional and use hyacinths, here's what you do. Fill the jar so it barely tickles the bottom of the bulb, but doesn't really touch it. It may not seem like this can possibly work - but trust me! Make sure the tip is pointing up, because this is where the flower will emerge.
Then stick the vase, bulb and all, into the refrigerator or some other cool, dark place where the temperatures won't rise above 50 degrees- perhaps an unheated garage or porch if you haven't spare refrigerator space.
How long will it have to stay there? That depends on your hyacinth bulbs. Sometimes they are available pre-chilled, which will cut several weeks off of its dark and lonely exile - you may see top growth in as little as 6-8 weeks. But if you buy your bulbs off the shelf or out of a bin at the local nursery, then it can take as long as 13 weeks. So, be patient.
Check on your bulb every so often and replenish the water so that it stays just millimeters away from the bottom of the bulb. You'll see roots begin to emerge and fill the glass. Finally, you will see a little whitish-colored shoot emerge from the top.
Now you can bring your hyacinth out into the light. Don't drench it in brightest sunlight - filtered light in a room with temperatures of between 60 and 70 degrees is perfect. Keep it there until the shoot turns green. Then it is ready for the bright lights and applause.
Once the hyacinth flowers this way, it can last two to three weeks. You are likely to encounter only one difficulty, and that is that the bloom can get so heavy that it tries to topple out of the vase. With no soil to anchor it, this can be a bit of a problem.
Bulbs forced in water, however, should be considered disposable. Without any soil or direct outdoor sunlight to nourish the bulb, it will be totally exhausted when it is done flowering. So you can use this next tip without feeling like a bulbocide. Take a bamboo pick or other skewer and stick it right into the bulb and tie the flower upright. Go ahead and stick it right through the side of the bulb and into the glass. It will only hurt you for a moment - and is far better than seeing that bright, promising flower come toppling onto the tabletop.
You can do exactly the same with paperwhite narcissus - except that it's much easier and faster. These bulbs don't require pre-chilling. All you need to do is set them on top of the glass, add water to the required level and wait. Using forcing glasses is an old idea that has become new again - and can look totally charming when you set a cluster of them on your table as a reminder that spring is coming.
Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.