Daffodils Mean Spring! -Spring 2014

by: Hilary Newell

Pink, yellow, white or orange, or any combination thereof, daffodils provide bursts of color and interest in the spring landscape from March through May, and are one of the hardier and most rewarding perennials for the gardener to grow.

DAFFODILS ARE THE MOST RECOGNIZABLE HARBINGER OF SPRING ON NANTUCKET. With the first blooms coinciding with longer days and signaling the coming of warmer temperatures, the daffodil beckons summer gardens forth from their winter rest.

Nantucket’s Daffodil Festival, now in its 40th year, and held the fourth weekend of April, is the island’s true celebration of spring. Coincidentally, it’s the perfect place to get inspiration for daffodil plantings of your own, come fall.

Daffodils are very rewarding to grow. Requiring very little care, they bloom reliably every year, and for Nantucketers and others who battle deer-browse, they are completely resistant to being eaten by deer and rodents of any size. This is because all parts of the plant are poisonous. The botanical name for the daffodil is Narcissus, and they are also sometimes called jonquils, referring to the Spanish word for rush-like leaves. Generally, the term jonquil is given to small-cupped or flatfaced Narcissus. Whether you call them daffodils or jonquils, they are all Narcissus, with at least 50 species of Narcissus and thousands of named cultivars.

Choosing the right varieties can be a challenge, when there are entire catalogs dedicated to their cultivation. Daffodils vary widely in appearance, by height, color and even structure, and have a wide variety of uses, from naturalizing to plantings in borders, to their use in rockeries, window-boxes or containers. Their fragrance and season of bloom also vary, and knowing which ones bloom early, mid-season or late can make a difference in how your yard will look. Fragrance can be intense, with some varieties filling a room with their perfume with just a few stems. Paperwhite Narcissus bloom as houseplants in winter and while a little scent is welcome, they can be overwhelming in a house with closed windows.

Scents of outdoor varieties can range from the rich vanilla given off by Carlton, to ripe pear, magnolia or even a musky aroma. Even those that aren’t strongly scented have a distinct, welcome, earthy smell. If you see “poeticus,” “tazetta” or “odorous” on a daffodil package, they will have fragrance.

Giving daffodils the right start will go a long way in ensuring success. Bulbs should be planted in the fall. I have a difficult time getting around to planting them in autumn with so many other gardening tasks at hand, though it’s safe to plant them as long as the ground isn’t frozen. October or even early November is fine, so they can get some good roots established before they freeze. We have planted successfully as late as the middle of December. When you buy daffodil bulbs, the flowers have already begun to develop deep inside the bulbs. The onion-like outer layer may flake off, but that is OK. They should be planted in full sun to part shade. An area shaded by a deciduous tree (one that loses its leaves in winter) is fine, as they will flower before the tree leafs out later in the spring. There will be plenty of light to sustain them while they’re in bloom. Soil should be loose and well-drained, but with plenty of organic matter worked in.

Planting at the right depth is probably the most important thing to get correct right from the start. Daffodil bulbs are shaped like large raindrops. The tops are pointy, and the bottoms are rounded. That rounded part gets planted at the bottom. Sometimes there are even small roots sticking out from the bottom, so that will help you figure out which direction to plant. The pointed end of the bulb should be at least four inches and no more than seven inches below the top of the soil. If they aren’t planted deep enough, the bulbs may heave out of the ground during periods of freeze-thaw. The depth protects them from variations in the temperature. Too deep, and they may never bloom.

The look of truly “naturalized” patches of daffodils is easily attainable here in the Northeast. Wild daffodils spread and naturalize by seed, but our winters are too cold for this to happen. We can, however, get the same look by planting clusters or drifts of bulbs. Often, novices use a bulb-planter to get their bulbs in the ground. This can result in single stems of flowers sticking up around the yard. Planting 30 to 40 bulbs at a time creates a real vision of flowers in the spring. Drifts can be planted with all the same variety, or by mixing varieties that bloom at the same time. To plant a drift, dig an area about seven inches deep and at least three to five feet wide. Strew handfuls of bulbs and set them right in the ground where they fall. Let your messy side show through here. Neat, straight lines are not the way to go. You can plant them as close as two bulb-widths apart. Patches of five or seven are also great accents in garden beds.

When your bulbs are done flowering, it’s a good idea to take off the spent flowers. This helps the bulb begin to store energy for the following growing season. By all means, do not tie up the foliage to get it out of the way. Those leaves need all the sunlight they can get to make chlorophyll. Let the foliage yellow and die back naturally, and you will have healthier plants to show for it. The rule of thumb I learned is to leave the foliage alone until July 4. But I find it’s usually ready to be removed a couple weeks before that.

You really can’t go wrong choosing varieties to plant. Selecting daffodils has been made a little easier by the American Daffodil Society. Thirteen divisions group varieties by flower shape, with one division dedicated to “wild,” or species tulips. Most catalogs also indicate bloom time in the description. Keep in mind that daffodils may behave differently from zone to zone, so the bloom times indicated in the descriptions are for comparison purposes. They are usually labeled “early spring,” “mid-spring” or “late spring.” Of course, spring on the calendar can be quite different from actual spring, so if your earliest variety blooms April 1 one year, it may be a week or two earlier or later in a spring with different weather. This can make the Nantucket Garden Club’s Daffodil Show, which is held on the same weekend every year, quite interesting by having different varieties starring in different years.

One year recently, warm weather arrived early on Nantucket and many daffodils were done blooming by the time Daffodil Weekend came around. Those who wanted to show their prize specimens were coached by the garden club to pick their daffodils and refrigerate them until the show. That year we were treated to beautiful blooms of late varieties like Pueblo, an all-white, very fragrant flower, and Pheasant’s Eye, an old-fashioned, small-cupped variety. If you have never visited the show, you are really missing out. The greenhouse at Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm is full of the brightest, most beautiful, decoratively-arranged daffodil specimens you have ever seen. It is a photographer’s dream and inspiring to every level of flower-lover. Amateur and professional daffodil growers present their blooms according to group: trumpet, large-cup, small-cup, doubles, number of flowers per stem, those that have split-coronas (the trumpet part), miniatures and more. Take a notebook and pen (or your smartphone) and take notes on varieties that appeal to you. Then in the fall when it’s time to buy bulbs, you can look for those same varieties.

For more on descriptions of daffodil groups, visit the American Daffodil Society’s page at http://www.daffodilusa.org But i.f you want a real education on daffodil classification and showing, go to the Daffodil Show. Or better yet, enter a few stems.

Daffodils can stand very well on their own but can also benefit from being planted with other bulbs. Choose color combinations that you like. Your garden should be a reflection of your personal tastes. What one person sees as a hot combination might be seen by another as clashing. What matters is that you like it. Remember, most plants can be moved if they don’t seem right where they were initially planted. Other spring bulbs make great combinations of color in the early garden. To have a long blooming period in the spring, choose several different varieties that bloom from early spring to late spring. As one set of flowers goes by, your eye will be drawn to a different area of the garden by another variety that is coming into bloom. For more color, plant your daffodils with shrubs, perennials and other bulbs that have similar bloom times.

Early daffodils often bloom around the same time as Forsythia and the diminutive Chionodoxa and Crocus, while others bloom at the same time as Cornus florida and Magnolia. Planting varieties that bloom at different times throughout your yard that also has spring-blooming shrubs and perennials will give you a longer color show. Plant miniatures and highlyscented daffodils where you will walk by them every day. The miniature Minnow is perfect for a tightlyplanted window box or porch pot. The American Daffodil Society defines miniatures as those that are less than six inches tall, and with flowers that are less than two inches in diameter. They also work well when planted among ground-covers like periwinkle (perennial Vinca) thyme or low-growing sedums. Hawera is one of the smallest of the miniature daffodils and has multiple elfin, pale-yellow nodding bells per stem. The demitasse-shaped cup is surrounded by swept-back petals. It is versatile in that it can grow in dry areas, in pots, in full sun or partial shade. Try it planted with Muscari armeniacum or Hellebores. All daffodils can also be planted and grown in containers and they can be planted very close together, but not quite touching, for maximum display.

King Alfred was a standard for over a century, but is difficult to find today. If you can find this heirloom variety, purchase it. With the whole flower colored sunny yellow, it is a shining star in the garden. But there are many other interesting varieties. I love Jetfire. It has clear golden petals with an orange trumpet and blooms in early spring. It’s very reliable and bold. Barrett Browning has a small orange cup and glistening white petals. It also blooms in early spring. At 16 inches tall, it makes a great cut flower.

Tete-a-tete (literally “head-to-head”) is basically a miniature version of King Alfred, but with multiple flowers on each stem. Often potted and used as a houseplant, it makes a great gift for a gardener friend, because it can be planted in the garden when it is done blooming. Once it is in the garden, it’s one of the first varieties to bloom.

If you are looking for a pure white daffodil, look no further than Thalia. Along with its beautiful scent, Thalia stems can have up to three graceful flowers on each stem. It blooms midto late spring and makes a stunning cut flower.

Sentinel is an excellent pink-cup variety with strong stems. It blooms mid-spring and grows to 16 inches. The ruffled pink cup lends itself to being an interesting cut flower. Most daffodils look beautiful in a vase in the house, but take heed: There’s a chemical in its mucous-like sap that will shorten the life of other flowers (non-daffodils) in the vase, so don’t mix your other cut flowers with daffodils unless you only need a very short vase life.

One of the split-cup daffodils, Sorbet offers a beautiful color combination of white petals with a contrasting cream, yellow and orange cup. It blooms mid-spring with 16-inch stems. Regally named, Sovereign has white petals and a bold golden-orange split cup and is very showy. Fragrant Jack Snipe is a classic clump-forming variety with a beautiful color combination of white and yellow blooms.

Cheerfulness and Yellow Cheerfulness are two favorites that can’t help but make you smile. The first one is an heirloom variety with sweetly-scented double-yellow and white clusters of blooms. Blooming in late spring, it grows to about 16 inches tall and is exhibited frequently in shows. Yellow Cheerfulness is simply the solid-yellow version.

A real show-stopper is Ambergate. It’s a departure from traditional yellow, with coppery-orange petals with bright-red cups. At 14 to 16 inches it will stand out in the garden, in a vase or at the show.

Daffodils are an ideal spring flower, but they can also be tricked into blooming indoors. This is called forcing and it’s pretty easy to do. You need a cold, dark space, ideally a refrigerator that you don’t otherwise use. The temperature should be 35-45 degrees. Choose varieties that are good for forcing (this is usually indicated in the catalog or on the packaging) and plant them deeply in a pot with a houseplant potting soil. Water them well and let the excess water drain away. This can be done in October or November. Place the planted pots in the refrigerator and check them once a month for dryness. When the soil is dry down to the depth of the bulb, remove them from the refrigerator and water them thoroughly again. Most bulbs require about 12 weeks of this cold treatment, so three months after you plant you can remove the pots from the refrigerator and let them begin to grow at a normal room temperature in a sunny window. Green leaves may already be pushing up through the soil. The foliage will grow and buds will follow soon after. Keep them evenly moist once they come out of refrigeration. Once you are finished enjoying the blooms, you can carefully remove the entire ball of soil from the pot and plant it in the garden. Let the foliage ripen naturally and they will bloom again at their natural bloom time the following year.

No matter where you live, the cheery blossoms of daffodils signal the arrival of spring, golden, creamy, peach or white sepals and corollas greeting from a distance, waving in the breeze, or even poking their heads up through the snow. Drifts of yellow explode out of the ground, providing a much-needed color boost in April. A symbol of hope and renewal, the daffodil has become the American Cancer Society's symbol of new life and hope for a cure for cancer. ///

Hilary Newell is an expert gardener, and can be found at Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm where she has worked for over 25 years.

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