It seems obligatory to complain about grape hyacinth leaves. They are too many, apparently, and they persist for too long. This is certainly true of some species of muscari. The leaves can become a great tangle of green – luxuriant, but messy, swamping things around them.
Still, this is an issue only if you plant in the wrong place. Too much rich garden soil and you’ll get more leaf and less flower; assign them to short grass below trees and shrubs, or in thin, stony ground, and you’ll get a pool of blue as deep as the ocean. The trick is being a little mean with fertility and offering some shade come summer. Plant them now, scattering the bulbs in large, informal groups, and get them down deep – 10cm or so, 5cm apart.
I naturalised a swath of the Armenian grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) in the grass around my beehive. It’s my spring-welcoming gift to the bees. You don’t notice the leaves hidden in grass, and as long as the short grass is not mowed too frequently, they will survive. They also work well as ground cover under deciduous trees, making an impenetrable mat that keeps weeds at bay. Another one for short grass is the common grape hyacinth, M. neglectum; a darker purple, almost black, and it will self-seed even in grass (don’t put it in a bed in a small garden, as it will take over).
There are some rarer muscari worth looking out for. M. azureum has pale blue flowers with dark strips running down the centre of each petal. It hates being hot in summer and looks terrible if grown on bare soil in spring, when rain will splatter it with soil. M. latifolium is more refined. The flower spike is a dark purple, crowned with a bright blue topknot. It can be given pride of place in the garden as it won’t take over.
However, the muscari I love most is M. comosum, the tassel hyacinth, which grows in woodland scrub in Italy and Greece (it’s recently had a name change to Leopoldia comosa, but I’m in denial). The top flowers look like tassels and the bottom flowers are a muddy purple. The bulbs are edible, known as lampascioni, and are eaten mostly in southern Italy. They are a pain to process, full of bitter mucus, but find someone who knows how to cook them and there’s an unusual Mediterranean treat to be had. They are usually served in oil and vinegar, and taste like a strange, bitter pickled onion. They are addictively good. The only place I’ve found selling bulbs to grow (not to eat, be wary of pesticides) is eBay. You’ll find plenty of M. comosum ‘Plumosum’, but it’s ugly and the flowers are sterile, which is no good for the bees.
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