I have lost track of when I bought my first antique bulb forcing vase. The shelves of my library bookcases are lined with favorites that create a prism effect from the spectrum of so many colorful vases. The allure of richly colored glass mixed with the hope of a fragrant treat to help dull the winter blues was reason enough to initiate the collecting obsession!
The joy of forcing flower bulbs in glass vases-tulips, crocus, narcissus, amaryllis and hyacinths – was first noted in the early 18th century. In the 1730’s growing bulbs in water was mentioned in scientific tracts as a popular curiosity in Germany, but long practiced in Holland. I can just imagine little candlelit northern European rooms being brightened on long winter days with these fragrant flowering curios. I feel just the same way with my first bulbs popping into bloom so often on my January birthday! Rather than blowing out candles on a cake (at my age there is danger of fire!) I just close my eyes, breath in the luxurious fragrance of hyacinths and make a wish!
In 1752 Jans Voorhelm, a noted Dutch bulb grower wrote in his important book Traite sur la Jacinthe, penned for the French garden enthusiast, that the craze for forcing bulbs-particularly hyacinths- was at a frenzy pitch. In 1759 the court of Louis XV ordered 363 hyacinth bulbs for bedding purposes and 200 hyacinth bulbs for just for glasses!
Like all fads, the love of bulbs in vases waned in the early 19th century until the Victorian period when it was planted again with such enthusiasm that we now have many wonderful examples of bulb vases in brilliant colors and interesting shapes sprouting in the antiques marketplace. The most popular shape was called “Tye” named after the Birmingham England glass manufacturer George Pierney Tye. Squat and bulbous in shape, they were copiously copied by glass works all over Britain from 1850 until the early 20th century.
Dating from the 1820’s was the tall churn shape, slender and sculptural-almost contemporary in feeling. So often these beauties have a rough pontil giving away their age and rarity.
I am hard pressed to choose a favorite color vase. The rich purple of amethyst, made by adding manganese to hot molten glass looks amazing in profile with sunlight streaking through. Green ones, ranging from pale grass green to rich olive is perhaps the freshest choice. Elegant cobalt blue looks amazing with white narcissus. Amber vases fit into interiors so nicely, especially with the green strap like foliage of fragrant hyacinths.
To force hyacinths in a bulb vase, set bulb just above, though not touching the water. Put the vase with bulb in a dark and cold place for 8 weeks or so. I use a cabinet in my unheated laundry room. Never let the temperature go above 50 degrees or below freezing. Sometimes the water will get cloudy. No worries, just change it. When you see a vase full of white roots and the bulb shows signs of life popping out the top, bring them out into filtered light and slightly warmer temperature. After about a week your bulbs are conditioned to go anywhere in your home for a wintertime show! Like any plant they will move toward the light, so watch them! I have had them literally ”jump” out of the vases! Once they have bloomed out, I plant them in the garden for many years of enjoyment there.
Okay, it is spring now. Hyacinths helped brush away the winter blues, the bulbs are in the garden outside, and now the vases are empty. What to do? Store them? NO! Go to the grocery and buy a bag of onions (medium grade size) and use the same directions for forcing these as you did with hyacinths. I keep the vases ofgreen onions in my kitchen window all summer for a quick snip of green in a salad or stir fry!