Monday, February 26, 2024

Tulips vs. Hyacinths: What are the Differences?

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When you smell that lilting lift of the hyacinth, a heady, perfume-y flower that comes in pink, red, blue, purple, white, and other shades, you know the reality of spring has hit the world. Tulips often bloom around the same time as hyacinths, or slightly earlier, and other their cheerful, colorful bell-shaped heads as breeze nodding signs of the season.

The two flowers have some interesting overlaps in their uses and histories, but they are very, very different flowers.

Hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis) Blue Star blooms in a garden in April

©Sergey V Kalyakin/

Tulips Hyacinths
Classification Tulipa, over 110 species, thousands of hybrids and cultivars Hyacinthus; 3 main types including single, double, and multiflora; many varieties and cultivars
Description Tulips come in a wide array of colors from palest of creams to deepest of purples (almost black). They usually have 2 to 3 leaves and a single flower atop the stem. Hyacinths grow between 4 and 6 untoothed leaves, emerging from the bulbs, with aromatic flowers on spikes in many colors from apricot to deep red.
Uses Tulips are used for cutting gardens, herbal gardens, and ornamental gardens. When in herbal gardens, they might be used for skin care treatments or culinary garnishes or instead of onions. Hyacinths are highly aromatic flowers that are used in perfumes heavily, as well as ornamental and herb gardens. They may be used in skincare products or medications but are more well-known for their aesthetics.
Origins and growing preferences Dating back at least to the 10th Century as cultivated flowers, tulips have a long history from the Ottoman Empire to Holland where they are still highly favored. They need full sun and properly draining soil. Hyacinths date back at least 4000 years as cultivated plants and make play in Ancient Greek mythology in the tale of Hyacinth and his lovers. The flowers require full sun to partial shade and should be planted in autumn.
Fun facts and special features Tulips symbolize many things like romantic love, apologies, cheerfulness and happiness, or even purple as a sign of royalty. Hyacinths show different meanings through their varying colors: white for love and prayer, purple for deep regret, pink for playful joy.

Key Differences Between Tulips and Hyacinths

It’s unlikely folks would confuse hyacinths for tulips, but even apart from their stunning good looks, these flowering plants have many unique differences, as well as some overlapping history.

Tulips vs. Hyacinths: Classification

Beautiful orange-yellow Darwin hybrid tulips
Beautiful orange-yellow Darwin hybrid tulips

©Sergey V Kalyakin/

Tulips are botanically known as Tulipa, a genus of flowers belonging to the Liliaceae or lily family. Tulips are bulbous plants with large, ostentatious blooms favored the world over for their color, forms, and uses. Tulips are cool and cold weather climate flowers, unable to survive in tropical environments, as they require a cold, dormant season.

Hyacinthus are also a genus of bulbous flowers. They belong to the Asparagaceae family (asparagus) and the subfamily Scilloideae. They are known as hyacinths, commonly, and contain multiple species including true hyacinths, but not grape hyacinths (Muscari) though they have similar care needs. They used to be classified among the Liliaceae family, as well, but have been removed and classified separately. There are three main types of hyacinths, including single, double, and multflora hyacinths.

Tulips vs. Hyacinths: Description

Princess Irene tulip planted in a garden
Tulip Princess Irene, delightful color combination of orange with purple flames


Each tulip plant produces two or three thick blue-green leaves that cluster toward the bottom of the stem or base of the plant. Except in rare hybrids or mutations, each stem produces a single bell-shaped flower that may come in any of a huge array of colors and shades, except any true blues. Some of the most commonly seen tulip colors include:

  • Red
  • Pink
  • Orange
  • White
  • Yellow
  • Bicolor
  • Mauve
  • Purple
  • Almost black
  • Multi-color forms
  • Brownish red
  • Burgundy
  • Pale purple
  • Violet
  • Striped

Hyacinths, on the other hand, grow between 4 and 6 leaves, in most cases, emerging from the bulb of the flower. The intensely aromatic blooms come in an array of colors, as well, usually in pink, white, purple, pink, blue, burgundy, cream, apricot, salmon, pale yellow, mauve, lilac, or rose. The stems themselves are leafless but serve as a spike for the many blossoms per each.

Tulips vs. Hyacinths: Uses

Dark purple Queen of Night tulips in bloom
Dark purple Queen of Night tulips in bloom

©Printemps PhotoArt/

Tulips have long been favored among flower gardeners in a range of plant beds and gardens. From cutting gardens where the blooms are cut for bouquets, boutonnieres, gift baskets, and floral arrangements, to herbal flower gardens where the gorgeous flowering edible plants bloom each year. Tulips may be grown in flower beds, raised beds, container gardens, single pot displays, cutting gardens, and edible gardens. The flowers and bulbs are both edible and medicinal, as well, so they are often grown for uses in skincare products for treating minor skin irritations, insects bites and stings, and dry skin. They are often used in culinary offerings, replacing onions or garnishing dishes and salads with colorful raw or cooked splashes.

Hyacinths are also extremely popular for both aesthetic and medicinal purposes. The bright flowers offer up incredible aromas that make them popular as border plants and flower bed plants. They are often planted in pots and brought indoors or grown as hydroponic plants in specialized hourglass shaped glass jars. They may be grown in container gardens, pollinator gardens, or even cutting gardens, as well as some herbal gardens. Hyacinths are used in perfumery, as well, offering up incredible scents used in popular, familiar, and less familiar brands. Some of those include Goutal Paris Grand Amour, Chanel Cristalle, Floris Edwardian Bouquet and Hermès Un Jardin Sur Le Nil. Hyacinth are used to treat eczema, in skin moisturizers and antimicrobial/antifungal/antibacterial products, treating cholera, sore throats, and even mild snake bites, and other ailments.

As with the case of all herbal medicine uses, please consult a medical care provider before attempting any such herbal remedies at home.

Tulips vs. Hyacinths: Origins and Growing Preferences

Red hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis) Jan Bos blooms in a garden in April
Red hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis) Jan Bos blooms in a garden in April

©Sergey V Kalyakin/

Tulips are known to date back to at least the 10th Century as cultivated blooms among the Ottoman Empire folks, when it became the empire’s symbol. The flowering plant is believed to have originated in Central Asia, spreading across the planet over the millennia, until it reached the Netherlands where Carolus Clusius received bulbs and became cultivating them for the western world in the late 1500s. In the early 1600s, the flowers became so wildly popular that their buying and selling actually crashed the stock market, at the time “Tulip Mania” in the 1630s. The flowers lost some popularity, but only slightly, at that time because of overselling by those thinking themselves clever. They have remained popular the world over, however, and have become one of the three most sought after flowers in the world.

To grow tulips, plant the bulbs, pointed end upward, about 6 to 8 inches apart in well-draining soil where the plants will receive full sun.

Various sources tell us that the term hyacinth may date back as far as 4,000 years ago, pre-Ancient Greek, to the Thracopelasgian dialect. It is assumed that the word’s meaning connects to the most famous hyacinth shade (the purplish-blue), in relation to water. The belief is that this attaches to the “true hyacinth” (Hyacinthus orientalis) that ran in this color alone, with later developments from the plant give us pale mauve and white shades. This parent of the modern day hyacinth, often referenced as Dutch hyacinth, grew wild in the Mediterranean back in those days, as well as throughout Asia Minor, Syria, and Persia (Iran). The flower became highly popular in Greek, thanks to the legend of Hyacinthus and his lovers, and has continued to blossom in popularity throughout the world since that time. The same original western cultivator of the Tulip, Carolus Clusius, is credited with the western cultivation of the hyacinth, as well. His skills as a botanist and bulb growing specialist helped to turn the Netherlands into the bulb growing capital of the world, which is remains today.

Growing hyacinth is fairly easy. They need full sun to partial shade, with at least 6 to 8 hours of daylight per day. They should be planted in autumn, about 6 to 8 weeks before the first hard frost comes and spaced out 3 to 6 inches apart. They prefer slightly acidic soil that is loose and well-draining and that isn’t laden with compost.

Tulip vs. Hyacinth: Special Features and Fun Facts

Large flower bed with multi-colored hyacinths
The many colors of hyacinths have different meanings and, surprisingly, aromas.

©Kateryna Mashkevych/

Both tulips and hyacinths are thought to symbolize spring by many, depending on where the person lives and the availability of the types of flowers – or at least how often they “overtake” the spring scene in the area. Both perspectives are correct: the flowers do symbolize new life and spring for much of the world. There are other intriguing facts and special notes on each flower as well.

  • Both tulips and hyacinth are considered some of the longest lasting vase flowers.
  • Yet tulips only bloom for 3 to 7 days when planted in the ground.
  • Hyacinths have a vase life of between 7 and 10 days.
  • The modern tulip industry began in Holland in the late 1500s or early 1600s. They were cultivated long before this, but it wasn’t until they hit the European craze that the industry really took off. They remain one of the most popular flowers in the world these 400+ years later.
  • Hyacinths appear in Ancient Greek mythology. The flowers are named for the legendary young Hyacinth who was killed when Zephyrus and Apollo fought for the young hero’s affections. It’s said that the flowers sprung forth from the place where the young god’s blood was spilt.
  • Holland remains the largest producer of tulips today. And the nation is also the largest grower of hyacinths today, despite both flowers originating elsewhere in the world. Holland sells upward of 3 billion tulip bulbs annually.
  • Different colors of hyacinths and tulips carry different meanings. Purple hyacinths mean deep regret while white tulips are the flower of apology. Pink hyacinths are the flowers of playful joy, while yellow tulips symbolize cheerfulness and happiness. White hyacinths symbolize love and prayer, while red tulips represent romantic love.
  • The hyacinth is a member of the asparagus family. Yep. The veggie family.
  • Striped tulips get their unique coloring not from breeding but from a virus. Originally, all the way until the 1930s, it was thought the stripes were rare color forms and so these plants sold for a lot of money. But in 1931, scientists discovered the stripes were the result of a virus carried by aphids. Now, we get the stripes from the DNA artificially created and implanted by scientists.
  • Hyacinths come in many colors and, interestingly, each color carries not only its own significance but its own scent. The luscious flowers are often used in perfumery because of this.

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