Hyacinths are funny flowers — big, bold and exaggerated. The clowns of the floral world.     

These flowers stand out, oddly out of place in the gray landscape of a Vineyard spring. With a large and top-heavy blossom, they appear ready to topple over, but they don’t have the large feet that clowns do, just a few slender leaves that wouldn’t hold them if they did take a tumble.       

And their outrageously audacious shades are often planted in a mix of colors that scream for attention.  

To match their flamboyant appearance, hyacinths offer a pungent bouquet of smells – another of their larger than life characteristics.     

These boisterous blooms scream spring and have been a favorite for many centuries. Native to the eastern Mediterranean region, they were introduced to Europe in the 16th century. The Dutch took a keen interest. By the 18th century, more than 2,000 cultivars had been developed and the name Dutch hyacinth was born. The name stuck, though these flowers are also called common or garden hyacinths.    

What they are not called is grape hyacinths, because those little lookalikes are not related to the larger hyacinths at all. Grape hyacinths are not with the hyacinths in the genus hyacinth; find them in the muscari genus.  

Not all of the cultivars lasted, and today about 60 can be found commercially. Hyacinth hedonists adore their tubular flower spikes, intense fragrance, perennial nature and ease in growing.     

Others may consider them concerning. Hyacinths contain calcium oxalic acid, which can cause skin irritation and is toxic to humans and pets.  Beware of consumption or even contact with the bulbs, flowers, or leaves. This toxicity can deter some wildlife from eating your plants but others — including squirrels, chipmunks and voles — can dig them up and consume without any ill effects. Interplanting with daffodils, which rodents tend to avoid, can help.    

It was French botanist Joseph Pillar de Tourneforte who christened the genus hyacinth. He also is credited with defining the term “genus” as distinct from species, and was attributed as the first to distinguish a place of plants as a “herbarium.”    

The mythological derivation of the name hyacinth comes from the ancient Greeks, who share the story of Hyacinth and Apollo, two lovers who were playing a game when tragedy struck. Apollo threw a discus that pierced Hyacinth’s head. As he lay dying in Apollo’s arms, the spilled blood from his wound grew the first hyacinth. That flower would forever honor the man and his memory, making him immortal through their annual blooming.   

But it was American poet John Greenleaf Whittier who honored the plant even more, with his advice that “If thou of fortune be bereft, and in thy store there be but left two loaves, sell one, and with the dole, buy hyacinths to feed the soul.”  

Suzan Bellincampi is Islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.