Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dances with Daffodils

There is something about daffodils that seems to inspire poets, most famously Herrick and Wordsworth. Tulips have brought out completely different reactions over the years, most famously “Tulipomania”. Daffodils and tulips are far and away the most popular flowering spring bulbs, so why does one seem to push buttons with collectors while the other brings out the muse?
Maybe it is just because the sunny yellow flowers of daffodils (Narcissus spp.) are such a change from the drab colors of winter. Also, when the daffodils bloom it means that warmer days are just over the horizon. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like daffodils. What’s not to like? Unlike fussy tulips, daffodils will live and multiply for many years after planting, if the conditions are suitable. And while critters might dig up daffodil bulbs, they don’t eat them -- the bulbs are toxic to most animals. Even the nicest daffodils are relatively inexpensive and easy to find. Nearly all daffodil species will survive extremely cold winters, are adaptable to other conditions and, while there are some pest and disease problems, few are serious.
Some people think that the fragrant white forms such as paperwhites are called “narcissus” while the large yellow trumpet flowers are jonquils or daffodils; in fact, Narcissus is the botanical name of the genus, “jonquilla” is the name of a daffodil classification, and “daffodil” is the common name for the same plants. In spite of Wordsworth’s happy hosts of daffodils, the origin of the genus name is less cheerful. The word “Narcissus” is said to be a derivation of the ancient Greek word “narke”, meaning deep sleep or numbness; “narke” is also the root of the word “narcotic”. This connection may be related to the toxic properties of chemicals in daffodil bulbs. On the other hand, the legend of Narcissus is more romantic, but in the end equally unpleasant.
Narcissus was a beautiful young man who the gods had blessed with eternal youth and beauty, as long as he never looked at his own reflection. He should have remembered the warning about a woman scorned, because his lack of response resulted in Nemesis persuading him to look at his reflection in a clear pool. As legend has it, Narcissus was so overwhelmed with his beautiful reflection that he was unable to move away, and remained frozen to the spot. Eventually a beautiful flower grew in that spot, and it was called, of course, Narcissus.
Because so many bulbs are sold by Dutch growers, it is often assumed that daffodils and tulips are native to Holland. This is not true in either case. Daffodils are native to Spain and Portugal, but have been traded and cultivated for hundreds of years. Daffodils have been important landscape plants for over 100 years, but there is still much confusion about classification within the genus. Some experts estimate that there are close to 20,000 daffodil cultivars alone!
Daffodils are important as forced potted and cut flowers to the floral industry, and many homeowners also grow them for this purpose. The very fragrant, white-flowering paperwhite narcissus (N. tazetta) is one of the least hardy daffodil species, and it is the most frequently grown indoors. Generally speaking, the landscape industry does not get into this aspect of daffodil growing because it can be very labor intensive. Landscape contractors and designers usually look for one of two things in daffodils: the ability to naturalize quickly or the ability to make a “show” with large, brightly colored flowers or, in a woodland garden, masses of smaller blossoms. Daffodils are usually planted in rather large quantities for the best effect; this effect will only improve over time as the bulbs multiply and spread.
Daffodils aren’t usually considered plants for containers, but some of the smaller varieties are suitable for planting in 4-inch containers. Examples of these include the popular ‘Tete-a-tete’, ‘Jack Snipe’ and ‘Minnow’. Paperwhite narcissus can also be grown in containers for outdoor use, with about 3 bulbs in a 6-inch pot; paperwhites may be grown as perennials in the south but they are not winter-hardy in the midwest.
The American Daffodil Society uses a classification system which originally divided the genus Narcissus into 12 categories, a system adopted by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1959. In July 1998, the RHS revised their system based in the premise that any daffodil, once given a cultivar name, should be assigned a category in Divisions 1-12; Division 13 is reserved for plants that are only identified by a botanical name. The American Daffodil Society describes Division 13 somewhat differently, and adds a separate classification for miniatures. Both systems are based on flower proportions and are fairly complex. Rather than go into the fine points of each type, the following list gives a basic description along with a few cultivars as examples.

Division I: Trumpet Daffodils
*One flower to a stem
Narcissus ‘Dutch Master’
N. ‘King Alfred’ (or ‘King Alfred’ type)
N. ‘Las Vegas’
N. ‘Lemon Glow’
N. ‘Mount Hood’

Division II: Large-Cupped Daffodils
*One flower to a stem
N. ‘Carlton’
N. ‘Flower Record’
N. ‘Fortissimo’
N. ‘Ice Follies’
N. ‘Kissproof’
N. ‘Romance’
N. ‘Salome’

Division III: Small-Cupped Daffodils
*One flower to a stem
N. ‘Barrett Browning’
N. ‘Queen of the North’

Division IV: Double Daffodils
*One or more flowers to a stem
N. ‘Cheerfulness’
N. ‘Duet’
N. ‘Erlicheer’
N. ‘Flower Drift’
N. ‘Tahiti’
N. ‘White Lion’

Division V: Triandrus Daffodils
*Two or more pendant flowers to a stem
N, ‘Ice Wings’
N. ‘Liberty Bells’
N. ‘Thalia’

Dividion VI: Cyclamineus Daffodils
*Usually one flower per stem
N. ‘February Gold’
N. ‘Jack Snipe’
N. ‘Peeping Tom’

Division VII: Jonquilla (and Apodanthus) Daffodils
*Usually 1-5 (rarely 8) fragrant flowers per stem
N. ‘Golden Perfection’
N. ‘Quail’
N. ‘Suzy’
N. ‘Trevithian’

Division VIII: Tazetta Daffodils
*3-20 flowers per stout stem. (Very fragrant -- includes paperwhite narcissus)
N. ‘Geranium’
N. ‘Laurens Koster’
N. ‘Minnow’

Division IX: Poeticus Daffodils
*Usually one flower to a stem
N. ‘Actaea’

Division X: Bulbocodium Daffodils
*Usually one flower to a stem (“Hoop petticoat” daffodils)
N. bulbocodium

Division XI: Split Corona Daffodils
a. Collar Daffodils
b. Papillion or “butterfly” Daffodils

Division XII: Miscellaneous or Other Daffodils
*Daffodils not classifiable by first 11 divisions; many are inter-division hybrids.

Division XIII: (U.S.A.) Species, Wild Variants and Wild Hybrids
N. hispanicus sbsp. bujei

Miniature Daffodils
Miniatures have the same descriptive divisions as standards, only with smaller blooms, usually less than 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

The International Flower Bulb Centre in Holland reports that the 10 best-selling daffodils are (the list includes the official designations for variety, color and classification):

1. N. ‘King Alfred’ yellow-yellow Trumpet
2. N. ‘Salome’ white-pink, yellow Large-Cupped
3. N. ‘Ice Follies’ white-white Large-Cupped
4. N. ‘Tete-a-Tete’ yellow-yellow Cyclamineus
5. N. ‘Minnow’ yellow-yellow Tazetta
6. N. ‘Fortissimo’ white-yellow Trumpet
7. N. ‘Tahiti’ yellow-red Double
8. N. ‘Las Vegas’ white-yellow Trumpet
9. N. ‘Barrett Browning’ white-orange Small-Cupped
10. N. ‘Mount Hood’ white-white Trumpet

The Chicago Botanic Garden recommends these small daffodil cultivars: ‘Thalia’ - very fragrant, white-flowering, ‘Chit-Chat’ - late blooming, prolific, bright yellow, and ‘February Gold’ - very early-flowering, bright yellow. Their recommendations for large-flowering daffodils include ‘Fragrant Rose’ - white petals, rose-pink cup, rose-like fragrance, ‘Ice Follies’ - white petals, pale yellow cup, ‘Salome’ - white petals and pale salmon cup, ‘Barrett-Browning’ - small bright orange and red cup with white petals, and ‘Poeticus’ - fragrant late bloomer with white petals and red-rimmed yellow cup.
The American Daffodil Society recommends the following cultivars specifically for planting in drifts: ‘Ice Follies’, ‘Tete-a-Tete’, ‘Flower Record’, ‘Delibes’, ‘Unsurpassable’, ‘Barrett Browning’, ‘Scarlet Gem’, ‘Geranium’, ‘Cheerfulness’, ‘Peeping Tom’, ‘Mount Hood’, ‘Spellbinder’, ‘Carlton’ and ‘Viking’.
Daffodils look best planted in informal sweeps or irregular masses rather than neat lines, although they are often inter-planted with tulips and other bulbs to create formal displays. Daffodils are not fussy about soil as long as it drains well - no bulbs like sitting in water, where they would be sure to rot. Daffodils require plenty of sun but can survive under deciduous trees because they have finished flowering by the time these trees leaf out. Daffodils should not be planted under coniferous plants or broadleaf evergreens.
Plant the bulbs at least 4 to 5 inches below the surface, or even more. Planting too shallowly can result in the bulbs heaving out of the ground during freeze/thaw conditions, and it can also make the bulbs more susceptible to fungal diseases. Traditionally, bone meal has been the standard amendment added to the soil when planting bulbs. Some experts still recommend this while others do not. There are many new slow-release fertiziler formulas made specifically for bulbs; if you follow the directions carefully, those can be very helpful.
If daffodil bulbs do not bloom in spring, there may be a number of reasons, including any of the following:

*Either the bulbs need fertilizer OR they need less nitrogen in the fertilizer blend
*Too much shade
*Waterlogged soil
*Too much root competition
*Foliage was removed too soon the previous year -- it must completely dry out and die first
*Transplant stress
*Basal rot or viral infections
*Disease, damage or stress from previous season

The only serious problem that daffodils are susceptible to is Basal or Fusarium rot (Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. narcissi), which may appear on bulbs as a white or pink fungus. The fungus can remain in soil for years until presented with a host. This form of basal rot spreads quickly in hot summer temperatures and will usually kill the bulbs. The presence of weeds and excessive nitrogen can also cause the rot to spread more quickly. Planting bulbs deeply in late fall, or lifting and drying the bulbs quickly each winter can help slow the spread to other other bulbs. While there are various chemical controls, the best way to avoid Fusarium rot is by planting daffodil species and cultivars that are resistant to it. These include Narcissus bulbocodium, N. poeticus, N. tazetta and N. jonquilla.
A final note: in Wordsworth’s ode, one of the best known phrases refers to the daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” A recent report by a Duke University biomechanics expert noted that daffodils are able to bend, twist and “dance” due to their triangular shaped stems, which reduce wind drag and prevent them from breaking.


File Name: Daffodils
Word Count: 2,138

Originally published in The Landscape Contractor magazine
Photos by Becke Davis

A Very Famous Ode to a Bulb:


I WANDERED lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

--William Wordsworth, 1804


“Lob’s Wood,” by Elizabeth Lawrence, 1971, Published by the Cincinnati Nature Center, Cincinnati, OH

“Narcissus,” by Michael Jefferson-Brown, 1991, B.T. Batsford Ltd., London, England

“The Complete Book of Bulbs,” by F.F. Rockwell and Esther C. Grayson, 1953, The American Garden Guild and Doubleday & Company, Garden City, NY

“Taylor’s Guide to Bulbs,” 1986 Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA

“Gardener’s World of Bulbs,” 1991, Brooklyn Botanic Garden Plants and Gardens Series, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Inc., New York, NY

“Bulbs: Four Seasons of Beautiful Blooms,” Lewis and Nancy Hill, 1994, Garden Way Publishing, Storey Communications, Inc., Pownal, VT

“Bulbs and Tubers,” by Klaas T. Noordhuis, 1997, Rebo Productions, Inc., The Hague, Netherlands

“John E. Bryan On Bulbs,” Burpee Expert Gardener Series, 1994, Macmillan & Company, New York, NY

“Narcissus Pests and Diseases,” Cornell University Fact Sheet,

“Narcissus Diseases,” by Gary W. Moorman Professor of Plant Pathology, Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service Fact Sheet, 1998

“Daffodils: Crop Specific Guidelines for Growers,”

“Suggested Daffodil Cultivars for Iowa, by Richard Jauron, September 13, 1996, Department of Horticulture, Iowa State University, Ames, IA

“Daffodils Do the Twist,” by Phillip Ball, December 6, 2002,

“Chicago Botanic Garden Best Plants for Illinois: Daffodil,” by Jim Kemper, Master Gardener, 1997-2004, Chicago Botanic Garden

“Daffodil Classification System,” Royal Horticultural Society, July 1998


The International Flower Bulb Centre,

The American Daffodil Society,


Jean said...

Don't forget Judy Glattstein's latest bulb book, Bulbs for Garden Habitats -- I'm in that book!

Here's last Spring's daffodils at my place:

Daffodils at Foxes Earth