Books & Prose


Plant of the Month: Narcissus

daffodilWhen I was a student in England, a young man once smiled at me and ate a yellow daffodil. Although the practice isn’t to be encouraged—the bulb contains a toxic alkaloid—I will forever see in his expression the glow of the daffodil inside him.

Narcissus (we’ll get to names in a moment) have a long heritage as tokens of spring, apothecary plants, trade items, subjects for hybridization, and stalwarts of spring gardens. This adaptable mountain plant was cultivated in early medieval times and has naturalized throughout Europe; Virginia has naturalized varieties from English colonists’ gardens. A dry bulb travels well. The narcissus spread from its Mediterranean home through the Middle East to the Himalayas, China, and Japan, following the Silk Road and suggesting a universal delight in its spring joy.

Two elements make the narcissus garden worthy. First, the wild narcissus parents hail from the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa, eastward to the mountains of France and Italy. In its mountain home, the winters are cold, the springs wet from melting snow, and the summers hot. Brought to the lowlands, bulbs follow the same pattern, blooming early in wet spring but dying back in hot summer.

Second, its bulb nature helps its adaptability. The travel-worthy bulb contains the whole plant, encased in layers of stored food. After the bloom, the multiple green leaves send food back to the bulb. Next year’s flower forms at the base of the bulb, the “stem” that holds the growth cells. Unlike tulips, daffodils rebloom year after year.

But why do botanists say narcissus and you and I say daffodil? It’s all about age and appearance. The family is Amaryllidaceae; the genus refers to the Greek myth in which a young man who displeased a god falls in love with his own reflection in a stream and dies (the toxic bulb), perhaps evoked by the mostly downward nodding flowers. Daffodil may come from asphodel, the English common name for N. poeticus, one of the earliest mentioned narcissus, or it may be the Old English affodyle, “that which comes early,” says one source.

However, today daffodil should really refer only to the flowers with large trumpets (the corona) as long or longer than the outer circle of petals (the perianth). In 1950 the Royal Horticultural Society organized narcissus into 12 (now 14) divisions based on the size and shape of perianth and corona, the number of blossoms per stem, and technicalities such as number of stamens, the width of the leaves, and other details. I tried mightily to find a way to detail these in a short article, but failed. You should care, however, because good catalogs are organized following the dividisions, clarifying your choices.

The short list reads thusly: trumpet narcissus, large-cupped narcissus, small-cupped narcissus, double narcissus, triandrus (count those stamens), cyclamineus (think recurved petals), jonquilla (small and wild), tazetta (think paperwhites), poeticus (pheasant’s eye), species and wild forms, split cup, and miscellaneous, further separated into the botanically named and miniatures. Some narcissus are deliciously fragrant.

Growing narcissus is easy. The bulbs are planted six to eight inches deep in the fall, with a bit of bulb booster in the soil above (not at the base to avoid burning the roots, and not bone meal as it draws rodents and dogs). Fertilize established bulbs when leaves first show in spring and again in fall to help the bulb set next year’s flower. I deadhead for aesthetics, although I was told that modern hybrids won’t set seed that drains the bulb. Let the leaves brown naturally; overplant with annuals or perennials. (I hand cut the grass around the daffs in my side lawn, a technique for a small garden). Since narcissus come out early, they can be planted in semishady spots because the trees have not yet leafed out, though I’ve found that these eventually bloom less than bulbs in sunnier places. I’ve lost only one group of bulbs, likely because of moisture; narcissus take a variety of soils, but must have good drainage. Many books describe digging up established bulbs to separate and replant bulb offsets, but the one time I tried it, the bulbs never bloomed (not enough fertilizing?).

Favorites: Dickcissel, fragrant, with pale and darker yellow; Barrett Browning, creamy perianth and small orange cup; Palmares, ivory and pink split cup; Polar Ice, a small-cup but looking like an all-white poeticus; Avelon, patterned a sprightly yellow-green and white; Peeping Tom, very long-lasting, narrow distinctive shape; Minnow, tiny and sweet; Flower Record, a great forcer, white with a red-rimmed yellow cup. 

© Anna M. Warrock

Originally published in the Somerville Garden Club Newsletter, 2004