Mr Shipp’s Hyacinth Heaven


‘Don’t call me an O-phile anything’, Alan Shipp, custodian of the National Collection of Hyacinths, grunts with disdain – ‘I hate that’. I was sitting with him, out of the cold March wind, in the conservatory which overlooks his candy-striped domain and asked if there is a name for hyacinth-crazy gardeners, as galanthophile is for snowdrop lovers. There isn’t, but these blooms have a loyal fan club too and if you are one of them you will know Mr Shipp also has the world’s largest collection of varieties and is the last grower of hyacinth bulbs in the whole of Britain. Every year he opens his wonderland to the public for a weekend of all things hyacinthus. It is worth the trip for the scent alone.

I had been waiting to see this world-beating collection for some time, so finally walking past the board welcoming us all held a little frisson. I wasn’t disappointed; there was a fresh and unassuming air to the event but everyone there knew they were sharing a special occasion. It was rather like a mini-festival held in someone’s back garden, which, I suppose, is what it was; all a bit higgledy-piggledy with a few plastic chairs and a trestle table or two of plants for sale, a tea urn and some cakes sheltering under a lofty open-sided barn. The earth is astoundingly dark – black, in fact, as if its only purpose was to show off to advantage the rows and rows of pretty curling bells in many colours, some extrovertly fat and fulsome and others slim, delicate and discrete.

Mr Shipp tells everyone that hyacinths have been his life, they have fascinated him, earned him friends and a living and have taken him on unexpected journeys to unexpected places. But all this came to him by sheer chance. In fact, you could say sheer chance for him went back to his grandfather Thomas, who in 1880 won a pony and whip in a raffle. Thomas borrowed a cart, started selling vegetables, then bought some land and grew his own. His son, Alan’s father, Kenneth, moved the business forward and the Shipp family found themselves selling wholesale at Spitalfields. Traditional farming changed with the times and mechanisation meant bigger fields and lower prices. There was no land for sale near Waterbeach so Alan had to ditch his vegetables for a crop which would give higher value yields – in 1985 hyacinths came to the rescue.

Most people discover hyacinths young. We give them to children to grow in clear glass jars filled with water, so they can see how roots grow first, then the leaves and finally they are rewarded with a flower stalk. It’s all a bit of a miracle: I remember being intrigued by the high-waisted glasses that came out of the cupboard in autumn to be filled with a fat bulb, only to be returned. barren once more, a few weeks later. People have been enjoying forced hyacinths in this way for centuries. Fashion icon and mistress of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour, adored them and we have a record of 200 hyacinths grown for her ‘on glasses’ during the winter of 1759. The ladies of the court wore them tucked in their cleavage, the better to enjoy their heady sweet scent. I prefer them on my mantelpiece and I am very fond of this brown Victorian glass, given to me by my daughter, while always being on the look-out for a beautiful French fancy like the one in this painting.

Hyacinths make me think of the curly hair of a beautiful Greek youth, sculpted in marble. I am not the only one because Greek mythology tells of a gorgeous Spartan prince called Hyakinthos who was desired by both Apollo and Zephyr, the god of the west wind. As the senior god, Apollo laid claim to the young man but Zephyr in a fit of jealous rage took his revenge. While Apollo and Hyakinthos were competing in a game of discus Zephyr caused a wind to catch it and crash it into the skull of Hyakinthos, killing him. Apollo, filled with grief, turned the blood from his lover’s wound into a flower. This would have been the delicate, blue, wild version, indigenous to Turkey and Asia Minor and noted by Homer, Virgil and Ovid – known today as Hyacinthus orientalis. It was a pleasure to see them in growing at my feet and my son was able to get some advice about including them in a naturalised context in his Permaculture garden from the man himself.

Judging from their art, hyacinths were certainly admired by the Turks and it is probable that the first bulbs came via that route. The Flemish botanist, Carolus Clusius, who, in 1553, was in charge of the Imperial Gardens of Ferdinand II in Vienna, probably got hold of them, along with tulips and other spring bulbs, through the Imperial ambassador to Turkey. That same year Ferdinand died and Clusius moved on to a job in Leyden, taking the precious bulbs with him – and we think they included hyacinths. The Dutch have dominated the bulb business ever since but Clusius may well have done us a favour too and brought hyacinths over to Britain when he visited in 1590. What is known for certain is that they were recorded in 1562 as flowering in the botanical garden of Padua and that by 1597 John Gerard, the famous herbalist, was growing them in his garden in London. However, it was tulips that stole the limelight culminating in a mania for these bulbs which saw prices soar to ridiculous heights only to be dashed in February 1637. In the 1730s a similar madness gripped Europe, but this time it was for hyacinths. For a short while collectors went crazy for the double variety which was first popularised by Peter Voorhelm in 1702 with his, ‘King of Great Britain’, (named after William III who was Dutch of course). The feverish trade in hyacinths may not have lasted long but it brought the species to the attention of a wider public, culminating in the extravagant spring bedding schemes of the great Victorian gardens.

The Victorians had around 2000 varieties to choose from but this has shrunk to just a couple of dozen easily available ones today. Alan Shipp is doing his best to widen this offer and prides himself on his collection of more than 250 cultivars, many of them rare. He is particularly proud of his Russians beauties, the regal Grande Blanche Imperiale, dating from 1798 and the later, King Menelik Black, from 1863. He tells tales of lucky strikes and coincidence – like how he spotted Gloria Mundi, a lost variety dating back to at least 1767. Then there’s the story of the double-flowered yellows which were sent to him by an enthusiast in Lithuania who had collected endangered specimens after the breakup of the Soviet Union. He grew them as an unidentified double yellow until one variety was spotted at Kew in a painting by Mary Delany – a rarity from 1770, which at the time cost £800 a bulb, (her painted example belonged to the King).

Alan Shipp’s face is alive with pleasure as he speaks, and his enthusiasm is infectious. If you visit you will see him chatting with everyone, a tall man in his seventies, driven by his passion, proud of his achievement and amazed at his good fortune. It is said that Mr Shipp has lost his sense of smell so can no longer enjoy the amazing scent from his blooms, though it remains in his memory. If that is true, it is a pity but he certainly looks delighted by the pleasure he gives to visitors and he clearly is still able to enjoy a dab of the sweet scent of success, which he richly deserves.

The collection will be open this year on the weekend of the 24th and 25th March 2018
Find it in Waterbeach, Cambridge – Off A10, 3 miles N Cambridge. Satnav CB25 9LQ. Signposted to Bottisham Lock.

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All images are my own.

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