As you stalk your late winter garden searching for signs of spring, the green spikes emerging from daffodil bulbs are always a welcome sight. Often blooming before the last snow, daffodils are among the most long-lived of all perennial flowers, with lucky clumps persisting for decades or even centuries. And no wonder! Poisonous substances in daffodil bulbs, leaves and flowers make them distasteful to mice, voles, squirrels, rabbits and deer, while humans love their beauty and ability to adapt to a wide range of growing conditions.
Daffodils are more properly called narcissus, their genus name, or you can call them jonquils. Although they are the national flower of Wales, daffodils are native to Spain, Portugal, Austria and France. The first daffodil bulbs reached Britain around 1400, and soon after were carried to North America, sometimes sewn into pockets in women’s skirts.
Tempting Types of Daffodils
Today’s narcissus cultivars number in the thousands, and are divided into 13 Classes, or flower types. Such diversity can be great fun to explore, and I find that having different varieties coming in and out of bloom is the most enjoyable part of growing these sturdy bulbs. With at least a dozen types of daffodil growing in my yard, one week I’ll fill a vase with perky bicolors, and the next harvest some frilly doubles before they take on rain and go crashing to the ground.
Variety names in daffodils differ between the US and Europe, making it difficult to create a list of superior varieties. Durable yellow ‘Dutch Master’ and almost-white ‘Ice Follies’ have well-deserved reputations for growing well in warm climates. Where daffodils grow well, you can try varieties that are beautiful and fragrant, too. Specialty suppliers like Croft 16 in the UK, Brent and Becky's Bulbs in the US, or Veseys in Canada provide an inspiring overview of possibilities.
Daffodils are so collectible because they work in so many landscape situations. The plants’ active season of growth takes place before shade trees leaf out, so they are ideal for sites that get winter sun followed by summer shade. I like them along fencelines and scattered among clumps of ornamental grasses, and I plant daffodil bulbs near the edges of any flowerbed likely to be tasted by deer.
Springtime Daffodil Care
Daffodil bulbs are dormant from early summer to late autumn, so autumn is the best time to plant them. But I have found that small clumps of daffodil bulbs can be taken from the outside of larger clumps as soon as the tops show in early spring. As long you keep plenty of soil packed around the roots of fist-size clumps and promptly replant them, they will not miss a season of bloom.
I don’t need to feed daffodils grown in fertile garden beds, but those growing on a rocky hillside benefit from supplemental nutrition. Early spring is the ideal time to sprinkle a high-phosphorous organic fertiliser over the tops of established clumps, because the nutrients will be available to the plants from March to May, when they are in full leaf and packing away specialised cells for next year’s flowers. This is also why it is important to allow daffodils to retain their green growth until it begins to die back naturally in early summer.
Handling Daffodils as Cut Flowers
When cut just as the buds begin to open, daffodils make fabulous cut flowers. Simply cut the stems and place them in a jar filled halfway with water, and let them sit in a cool, dark place for several hours. If you like, enrich the water with homemade flower food made from one teaspoon each vinegar and sugar per pint of water.
Daffodils look great in tall, narrow-necked vases, but the long stems tend to bend or flop if not kept upright. An old florist's trick is to reinforce the stems with chenille pipe cleaners, but last year I discovered something better – damp sand. Once the damp sand was packed into a wide vase, I used a wooden skewer to make guide holes for the daffodil stems, then sloshed in more water when I was done. Success! The daffodils lasted as long in damp sand as they would have in a vase of enriched water.