Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives. That is why I am always happy to discover a new group of plants that thrive in our climate, grow beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that don’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar. Allow me to share one of my favorites….
Is it possible to fall in love with a genus of plant? Absolutely. Some flowers appeal to us so persistently that we respond to them in ways that don’t quite make sense. Their pull on our imagination, our affections, and yes, our resources, defies reason. When we can grow them without fear of deer loving them, too, the pleasure is all ours.
My neighbor called to tell me that his first daffodils began blooming on January 5 this year. He and I both collect daffodils and thousands of them bloom each spring between our two adjoining yards. We both order several hundred new daffodils each fall, and then take delight in our companion displays for several months each spring.
Noel Kingsbury, a beloved British landscape designer and horticulturalist, takes us on a journey of all things daffodil in his beautiful and very useful book, Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower.
Kingsbury’s history of the genus Narcissus begins in Pharaonic Egypt. Yes, the Egyptian royals were talented gardeners, collecting many of the same plants that we do today: Narcissus, Iris, varies lilies, Alliums, and many sorts of fruit bearing trees. Kingsbury tells us that Ramses II’s mummy was found with a Narcissus bulb covering each eye.
Because Narcissi, commonly known as daffodils or jonquils, return so reliably as winter transforms into spring, they’ve earned a mythic association with time and eternal life. They’re often planted around cemeteries in areas where they perennialize, returning year after year in ever greater numbers. They grow from bulbs, which may be stored dry for months out of the year, and they resemble other members of the Amaryllis family of flowering geophytes.
Narcissus are native to southern Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, and northern Africa and have been cultivated since ancient times. They are referenced in Greek mythology. Extremely poisonous, Narcissi have a narcotic quality when used medicinally. They were used, in measured, carefully prepared potions, to sedate and treat pain. Never mistake a Narcissus bulb for an onion; this has been done from time to time with disastrous results.
I appreciate the poisonous qualities of Narcissus and plant them with confidence where deer shred non-poisonous flowers and shrubs. I plant a ring of daffodil bulbs around new shrubs and trees to protect their roots from voles. In fact, we’ve learned to interrupt vole traffic to parts of our garden by planting rows of daffodils across their former paths. Unlike chemicals that must be reapplied every few weeks, the daffodil solution proves permanent, growing denser and more effective with each passing year.
However, the chemistry of Narcissus may also have an allelopathic affect to suppress the growth of some plants growing nearby. Narcissus plants produce the alkaloid Narciclasine, which can inhibit seed germination and reduce the growth of other nearby plants. Research in this area is ongoing. While fewer weeds may germinate around your Narcissus, it could also affect herbs, vegetables, flowering shrubs, or annuals that you want to grow during the rest of the year near daffodil bulbs.
There were nearly 80 distinct types of daffodils named in British horticultural records by 1607, when European colonization began in Virginia. The early colonists brought their daffodil bulbs with them, sometimes sewn into the clothing they wore on the voyage. Colonists planted daffodils throughout coastal Virginia as their settlements spread, and the bulbs thrived here. It is common to find heirloom Narcissus growing around old homesteads and historic homes.
By the early 19th Century, 150 distinct types of daffodils, both species and natural hybrids, were cultivated in England. As European and American settlers moved ever further west, they took their daffodils with them. Kingsbury describes how Native Americans carried daffodil bulbs with them along the Trail of Tears.
There are now so many thousands of named Narcissus varieties that they have been divided into thirteen divisions by the Royal Horticultural Society, which maintains the International Daffodil Register. All new varieties are officially registered, by name and color, with the RHS. Some might wonder why certain people passionately devote their lives to breeding new varieties of a single type of plant. Once there are already many thousands of named and recognized varieties, why would the world want more?
There is a desire to perfect the plant, generating stronger stems, more disease resistance, hardiness, and the ability to grow well and perennialize under a wide variety of growing conditions. There is also a challenge to produce certain combinations of size, form and color in the flowers.
Consider that it may take a Narcissus seedling up to five years to flower, and once selected, it may take another 10 to build up a large enough stock of bulbs to market commercially. Only someone passionately devoted to their art would persist so long in the pursuit of offering a new variety of daffodil to the world. There are currently thousands of named cultivars across thirteen divisions of Narcissus.
Daffodils bloom over a long season here in coastal Virginia, some as early as late December and some as late as early May. You can plant daffodil varieties that bloom in early spring, mid-spring, and late spring. Some of the heirloom varieties, popular in 17th Century Europe, remain on the market alongside of new introductions.
Daffodils arise from the wintery earth to grow and bloom when little else is in season, and then once their leaves have re-fueled the bulbs for another year, their leaves yellow, die back and disappear. If naturalized in grass, the grass can be mown again a little more than a month after the flowers finish. Many gardeners enjoy growing daffodils around shrubs and under trees. They make their spectacular spring show, and then are gone as the trees begin to fill in the canopy with their summer leaves.
Daffodils should be planted in the fall after the weather cools and can still be planted in our area through the end of January, in pots, or whenever the ground is soft enough to dig. They may bloom a little late, but they will survive. October through December is the best time to plant so the bulbs don’t begin growth too soon.
Plant a daffodil so that the bottom of the bulb is buried at three times its height. A bulb 2” high should be planted so that its basal plate, where roots develop, sits 6” deep and its tapered top points skyward. Plant in good soil where the plant’s leaves will get full sun while in growth. Some gardeners add finished compost or a balanced bulb fertilizer to the planting area.
Daffodils are happiness inducing flowers, greeting us each spring with cheerful faces and easy demeanor. No wonder they have remained popular around the world, over many centuries of human history.
A gardener knows that the bulbs planted this fall will bloom again and again, long past the time when another gardener has taken over the work. Growing daffodils allows us to touch and experience a living horticultural history that ties us to generations of gardeners who have lived before us, and who will garden long into the future.