Sunday 12 May 2013

The National Hyacinth Collection - A Visit in April 2013

In April’s capricious clime, travel North from Cambridge along the river Cam, to Bottisham Lock. There, from the Waterbeach bank, you catch a glimpse of gaily flowering rows and perhaps the scent of The National Hyacinth Collection.

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The collection has been established, maintained and grown by Alan Shipp*. His efforts are funded through bulb sales and visitors coming to wander amongst the rainbowed rows of blooms for a few short weeks when the hyacinths are in flower.

According to Homer’s Iliad (8th to 10th Century BC), hyacinths formed the couch of Hera, queen of heaven and earth. As with much of our culture and science, the love of hyacinths and their cultivation migrated to the Romans, were a key element in Arabic culture and came to renaissance Europe in the early 17th Century.  Alan’s collections includes the variety Grand Blanche Imperial, which originates from two centuries century after hyacinths were introduced into the Netherlands (see the “Hyacinth History”

From a genetic perspective, hyacinths exhibit a wide range of chromosome numbers, from 2n=16 through to 2n=32, with a wide range of odd numbers inbetween. With a twinkle in his eye, Alan revealed that it was possible to cross varieties with different chromosome numbers and still obtain viable seed – sometimes with an expected new number!

Hyacinth collection is a passion shared across borders and so it is, that Alan Shipps’ collection is in regular communication with collections in the Netherlands and Russia. Together they strive to find lost old varieties and discover new ones. Indeed, as we wandered through the rows arranged by variety, there was one pink sport amongst a row of blue.

My visit opened my eyes to this plant, hitherto seen as a fleeting flower in our (jungle) garden’s seasons.
For others it is a deep passion, best described by the poem found at the bottom of Alan Shipps’ list of varieties in his collection:

If, of  thy mortal goods thou art bereft
And from thy slender store
Two loaves alone to thee are left
Sell one and with the dole
Buy Hyacinths to feed the soul

(Muslihuddin Sadi, Persian poet, c1258)

*Alan K. Shipp, Holder of the National Hyacinth Collection, 
9 Rosemary Road
Cambridge, CB25 9NB

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