Each year the National Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization promoting the pleasures of home gardening, selects one bulb, one annual, one perennial and one edible plant to celebrate. It’s a great way to discover a new plant or to learn a bit more about a plant you may already be growing.
Here’s the first of 2017’s four plants, the bulb known as the daffodil.
The daffodil (Narcissus spp.) is a bulbous perennial native to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. It evolved on the Iberian Pennisula (Spain and Portugal) where the majority of species are still found, then spread around the Mediterranean on its own. Long appreciated for its beautiful flowers, it has been planted well beyond that region since Roman times, with the result that some species have thoroughly naturalized well into Europe, as far north as Great Britain, and Asia (Iran and Kashmir) and are considered by locals to be natives.
More recently others have naturalized here and there in North America (notably in old gardens and cemeteries). Pioneer women often brought daffodil bulbs over from the Old World sewed into the hems of their skirts to plant at their new homes to remind them of the gardens they left behind.
The botanical name, Narcissus is also commonly used as a common name (i.e. narcissus), especially for smaller-flowered varieties. It comes from the Greek for word narke for intoxicated, sleep or numbness (the same root that also gave the word narcotic) due to the sedative alkaloids present in the bulb. Indeed the entire plant is toxic, as are the other plants in its family, the Amaryllidaceae. In spite of that, narcissus bulbs have long been used for medicinal purposes. Galantamine, notably used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, is an example of one medicine derived from daffodil bulbs.
Obviously, the legend of the handsome and egotistical Greek youth Narcissus is linked the narcissus plant and was used by the Greeks to explain why the flowers face slightly downward as if they were admiring their reflection in a pool. For further information on the legend, read How the Narcissus Got Its Name.
Did you know that... the plural of narcissus is usually narcissi… but narcissus is also used.
The world daffodil originated in Great Britain and comes from asphodel (Asphodelus spp.), a perennial with somewhat similar flowers.
As for jonquil, it originally referred to only one species of Narcissus, N. jonquila, which has tubular leaves like a rush (Juncus) rather than the flat leaves of other Narcissus species, but the term is now often used to mean any daffodil.
Daffodils grow from an underground bulb that splits and spreads over time. Each produces one to several upright, lanceolate (tubular in the case of N. jonquila) leaves and a flower stalk bearing from 1 to 20 flowers.
The flowers are composed of 6 tepals (petals and sepals that can’t be told apart) and a central corona or crown, often with wavy edges. The corona can be large or small, cup-shaped or trumpet-shaped and its form is used by gardeners to classify daffodils (trumpet daffodils, small-cup daffodils, etc.).
Basic flower colors are yellow and white, more rarely green, while the corona can also be in those shades plus red, orange or, in hybrid daffodils, salmon pink. The flowers can be fragrant or odorless and are insect-pollinated.
Most daffodils are spring-blooming, flowering any time from February into June, depending on the species and the climate, but there are also several autumn-flowering species, none widely grown.
The nomenclature of daffodils is highly confused, notably because so many species hybridize in the wild and many man-made hybrids are widely naturalized. As a result, various taxonomists have claimed there are anywhere from 16 to 160 species, although most today agree there are about 50 species.
Daffodils are considered very easy to grow and planted in the fall as dry bulbs. Bulb size varies from species to species, but bulbs are usually planted at a depth equal to 3 times their height and spaced apart at 3 times their diameter. They prefer rich, well-drained, moderately humid soils and don’t need to totally dry out in the summer contrary to many tulips. Full spring sun is ideal, but partial spring shade is acceptable. They can be grown under deciduous trees, as they are indifferent to summer shade.
Hybrid daffodils rarely produce seed on their own (they offer little nectar and their pollen is distasteful to many insects) and therefore no deadheading is normally required. It may be wise however to deadhead the botanical daffodils (species) that do produce seeds, as that could drain the bulb’s energy and result in fewer flowers the following year. Likewise, ideally the foliage should be allowed to fully mature and yellow on its own, never tied or braided together (an old gardening technique that is no longer recommended).
Normally daffodils are planted permanently and never need to be divided. If they have to be moved or if you do want to divide them in order to obtain more bulbs, dig them up carefully when the foliage yellows. It’s best to replant them immediately, but the bulbs can also be stored dry over the summer for fall planting.
Most daffodils are very hardy, typically to zone 3, and indeed most won’t bloom without a cold winter, although some species, notably N. tazetta and the Paperwhite narcissus (N. papyraceus) are quite tender (zone 8 to 11) and don’t require cold conditions. All are summer dormant.
Unlike many tulips and crocuses, daffodils are poisonous and are not eaten by mice, voles, squirrels, rabbits or deer. A layer of daffodil bulbs can even be planted over top a planting of tulips to keep the latters’ enemies away. They are also safe to grow when there are children or pets around, as their bitter taste dissuades any consumption.
Daffodils do have insect enemies, though, the best know being the narcissus fly (Merodon equestris) whose larvae tunnel into daffodil bulbs and empty them out. This rarely kills the bulb (it will instead produce a replacement bulb), but does eliminate the next season’s bloom. It can most easily be controlled by thoroughly mulching your plantings each fall. When the bumblebee-like fly awakens in mid-spring looking for a meal, it will then have a hard time reaching the bulbs through the mulch.
Rot is also a possibility in constantly moist soils: make sure you plant narcissus bulbs under well-drained conditions.
Categories of Daffodils
There are some 18,000 narcissus species and cultivars, about 500 of which are in commercial production. To put some order into the multitude of choices, most suppliers present their narcissus bulbs according to the divisions proposed by the Royal Horticultural Society’s. These are based on type, size, and number of flowers.
Division 1 – Trumpet Daffodil
One flower to a stem, cup is as long as or longer than the tepals. Examples: N. ‘Dutch Master’, N. ‘Marieke’, N. ‘Mount Hood’, N. ‘Unsurpassable’.
Division 2 – Large Cup
One flower to a stem, cup is more than one-third but less than equal to the length of the tepals. Examples: N. ‘Accent’, N. ‘Chromacolor’, N. ‘Flower Record’, N. ‘Ice Follies’, N. ‘Pink Charm’, N. ‘Salome’, N. ‘St. Keverne’
Division 3 – Small Cup
One flower to a stem, the cup is not more than one-third the length of the tepals. Examples: N. ‘Barrett Browning’, N. ‘Dreamlight’, N. ‘Merlin’, N. ‘Segovia’.
Division 4 – Double
One or more flowers to a stem, with doubling of the tepals or the cup or both. Examples: N. ‘Bridal Crown’, N. ‘Flower Drift’, N. ‘Ice King’, N. ‘Rip Van Winkle’, N. ‘Tahiti’, N. ‘White Lion’.
Division 5 – Triandrus
Usually two or more nodding flowers to a stem, tepals are reflexed. Examples: N. ‘Ice Wings’, N. ‘Lemon Drop’, N. ‘Thalia’.
Division 6 – Cyclamineus
One flower to a stem, tepals are significantly reflexed, flower at an acute angle to the stem, with a very short neck. Examples: N. ‘February Gold’, N. ‘Jetfire’, N. ‘Peeping Tom’, N. ‘Rapture’.
Division 7 – Jonquilla
One to five flowers to a stem, tepals spreading or reflexed, flowers usually fragrant, foliage usually reed-like. Examples: N. ‘Baby Moon’, N. ‘Pipit’, N. ‘Quail’, N. ‘Trevithian’.
Division 8 – Tazetta
Usually three to twenty flowers per stout stem, leaves broad, tepals spreading, not reflexed, flowers fragrant. Examples: N. ‘Avalanche’, N. ‘Cragford’, N. ‘Falconet’, N. ‘Geranium’, N. ‘Minnow’.
Division 9 – Poeticus
Usually one flower to a stem, tepals pure white, cup is usually disc-shaped, with a green or yellow center and red rim, flowers fragrant. Examples: N. ‘Actaea’, N. ‘Cantabile’, N. ‘Green Pearl’.
Division 10 – Bulbocodium
Usually one flower per stem, insignificant tepals, corona well-developed: quite distinct from other daffodils. Sometimes called hoop petticoat daffodil. Example:’Golden Bells’.
Division 11 – Split Corona
Cup split, usually for more than half its length. Examples: N. ‘Curly Lace’, N. ‘Exotic Mystery’, N. ‘Papillon Blanc’, N. ‘Parisienne’, N. ‘Tripartite’.
Division 12 – Other
Daffodil cultivars which do not fit the definition of any other division. Examples: N. ‘Bittern’, N. ‘Tête-à-Tête’, N. ‘Toto’.
Division 13 – Botanical
All species and wild or reputedly wild variants and hybrids. Examples: N. obvallaris, N. x odorus flore pleno, N. poeticus recurvus.