There is something delightfully counterintuitive about seeing a fragrant hyacinth flowering in January when conditions outside could not be more hostile. Although you can trick any bulb into thinking it is spring, few are as easy to coax into life as the hyacinth, which can be forced in water in specially designed bulb vases. The world’s most enthusiastic bulb forcers were the Victorians, who inherited the fever from the Dutch across the water and created an entire industry around the practice. You can still find handblown 19th century hyacinth vases on eBay or at antique stores for a decent price
You don’t need much more than a refrigerator, but keep in mind that bulbs have to be stored there for several months, so the number you force may depend on how much room you want to set aside for your winter greens.
(1) Hyacinth bulbs require 8 to 14 weeks of chilling, and 2 to 3 weeks to bloom, although exact timing will depend on the cultivar. The pink and popular Anna Marie requires only 8 weeks of chilling, for example. If you want flowers in February, place the bulbs in the fridge by the end of October. If you’re in a hurry, try grape hyacinths or crocuses, which can be chilled for as little as 8 weeks.
(2) Your bulbs should be slightly smaller in diameter than your vases so that they sit snugly in the neck.
(3) Fill the vase with water, and then place the bulb in the top. The water should just reach, but not touch, the base of the bulb.
(4) When roots have developed, and shoots are between 1 ½ and 2 inches long, you can remove the bulbs from the fridge and place them, initially, in a semi-dark space.
(5) Move the bulbs progressively to a brighter and warmer place. If leaves start growing faster than the flowers, move the vases to a cooler spot and cover for a day or two.
(6) Once they’ve flowered, you can plant hyacinth bulbs in the ground, though it may take a year or two to see them in bloom again.
Tip: To keep water from smelling stagnant, add a tablespoon of rinsed aquarium charcoal to the vase.