Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides): Apollo’s Memento
Jim Lakin MD, Master Gardener
Wild Hyacinth is a Midwestern native that deserves a place in your garden. It is one of the few natives that propagate by bulbs. Wild Hyacinth grows in the wild in moist prairies, savannas and woodland edges. Once established, the bulbs are fairly long-lived, blooming reliably in the spring. Read this article to learn more about the value of Wild Hyacinth in your yard.
Hyacinth or Hyacinthus was a pretty boy of Sparta, so much so that he attracted the attention of the Sun God, Apollo. Apparently, they had a great time together until an errant throw of Apollo’s discus did the poor lad in. So, legend has it, the sorrowing Apollo created the Hyacinth flower in his memory. Of course, kill-joy horticulturalists have pointed out that the described Apolline flower looked nothing like the modern hyacinth. Nevertheless, the North American native hyacinth reflects its divine heritage when in bloom.
Wild Hyacinth is native to the Eastern and Midwestern United States, hardy through Zone 4. It is one of the few natives that propagate by bulbs. Most bulbs are “exotic” such as tulips (Tulipa spp.), daffodils (Narcissus spp.) and most commercially available hyacinths (Hyacinthus spp.) Although the North American species of hyacinth are, like their Eastern Mediterranean brethren, in the asparagus family (Asparagaceae) the two Midwestern natives are of a separate genus. The bladelike foliage of wild hyacinth appears in the early spring, quickly forming a spike of numerous buds. In May through early June a perfusion of blue or white flowers, set off by prominent yellow stamens. Since their blooms are ephemeral, they do well intermixed with other natives, providing a kaleidoscope of blooms throughout the season. Good companions include its sister, Southern Wild Hyacinth (C. angusta) which blooms a bit later in spring, Midland Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia), Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) and the ever-dependable Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum).
Wild Hyacinth grows in the wild in moist prairies, savannas and woodland edges. It flowers best in full sun but does well in part shade. It prefers hummus-rich slightly acidic soil. With adequate moisture, however it usually tolerates the slightly clay soil so prevalent in Minnesota. Once established, the bulbs are fairly long-lived repeatedly blooming in spring for years. Although the plant will reseed, it also propagates from bulb offshoots. If you are thinking about growing from seed, beware! Wild Hyacinth is notoriously slow to germinate and even slower to grow to maturity. You’ll be better off ordering bulbs from a commercial grower. It’s best to plant the bulbs in the summer or fall. The plant should emerge the following spring. After blooming, the basal leaves will turn yellow in mid-summer and wither away. The plant will remain dormant for the rest of the growing season. Over several seasons the plants should multiply forming a very attractive colony.
Wild Hyacinth is a nice addition to a pollinator garden. It attracts butterflies, wasps, moths and native bees. The bulbs are edible and were a significant food source for many Native American Tribes and Early Settlers. I wouldn’t recommend foraging for them, however, as the bulbs are virtually indistinguishable from Zigadenus elegans, A.K.A. Mountain Death Camus, which contains a very potent and lethal toxin!
Photo Credit: www.uniprot.org (all creative commons)(1), www.flickr.com (all creative commons) (2)