There nothing more cheerful in spring than the blooming of the daffodils. In Michigan they may not bloom in March but these easy to care for plants make any month more cheerful. Daffodils and their family members, narcissus and jonquils are plants that almost every gardener can grow, in almost every area of the country. They are almost carefree, live a very long time and multiply year after year. No garden should be without them.
Daffodil ((Narcissus pseudonarcissus) is the name given to the larger flowered members of the Narcissus genus. Narcissus or jonquil usually refers to smaller flowered members in common usage. However all daffodils are technically narcissus. There is a specific species of narcissus (Narcissus jonquilla), that should be defined as a jonquil, but the term jonquil in catalogs and stores may be deceptive. Jonquils should be plants with narrow, tube like leaves, where other members of the Narcissus family have broader flat leaves.
Narcissus are native to north Africa, and southwestern Europe where they have flourished for many thousands of years in meadows and the edges of woodlands. They have been pictured in art and written about since the earliest recorded human history. There are dozens of species of narcissus and hundreds of cultivated varieties. They have naturalized throughout much of the temperate areas of the world.
What they look like
The narcissus family consists of plants with a bulb, from which roots grow out of the bottom. The bulbs are covered with a brown papery “skin” and have long necks. Often narcissus or daffodil bulbs appear in clusters of two or three bulbs called double nosed or triple nosed bulbs. Daffodils/narcissus reproduce by producing new bulbs as well as seeds. Each bulb only lives about 4 years, but a colony of narcissus/daffodils can persist through decades. They have been found at home sites abandoned for more than a hundred years.
The bulbs of narcissus/daffodil need a cold dormancy period before re-blooming. How much cold and for how long varies by the species. When the dormancy period is over in the spring the daffodil/narcissus bulb sends up 2-4 leaves and a flower stem. In most narcissus species the leaves are long, narrow and flat with a round tip. The leaves are blue green to dark green and have a waxy sheen. The jonquil, as mentioned above, has tubular, hollow leaves. Height of the plants ranges from about a foot to a few inches high, depending on species and variety.
The flower stem of daffodils/narcissus is hollow near the flower bud and filled with a spongy material down closer to the bulb. The flower stem and bud emerge with the leaves or shortly after. Some narcissus/daffodils species have a single flower bud on each stem; others have a small cluster of flowers.
The daffodil/narcissus flower has a ring of 6 tepals (sepal-petal combination) at the base and a cup shaped flower structure called the crown, in the center which surrounds the sexual parts of the flower. Crowns can be shallow or long and deep. In a few species the crown is the prominent feature with the tepals small or absent.
Flower color is yellow or white with some cultivated varieties having deep orange–red color or a pinkish or green tint. Some flowers have contrasting colored tepals and crowns or a crown rimmed with a darker color. There are double flowered narcissus/daffodils and ones where the crown is split, called a butterfly narcissus.
Some daffodil/narcissus flowers are scented, and you either like the scent or you don’t. Some nod or dangle their flowers and other species have outward facing flowers. Some flowers are tiny and others are huge, depending on variety. The flowers produce hollow, 3 chambered seed pods filled with seeds. The plant does reproduce well from seed, but gardeners generally start with bulbs.
Common cultivated varieties of narcissus/daffodils include: ‘King Alfred’, large yellow; ‘Dutch Master’, very large, strong stems, yellow; ‘Mount Hood,’ large, pure white flowers; ‘Peach Cobbler’, large double flowers of yellow and orange, ‘Apricot Whirl’, a split crown with yellow tepals, orange center, light scent; ‘Broadway Star’, white double split cup with orange center marking, fragrant; ‘Galactic Star’, chartreuse tepals with white crown; ‘Salome’, white tepals with apricot crown and ‘Decoy’, white tepals with almost red crown.
Small varieties of daffodils/narcissus include: ‘Quail’, 3-4 flowers per bulb, golden yellow, fragrant; ‘Geranium’, 3-4 cluster flowers, white with red –orange crow, fragrant; ‘Minnow’, white with yellow crown, fragrant; ‘Bridal Crown’, 3-5 flower cluster of double white with yellow center, fragrant; ‘Thalia’, tiny pure white flowers on dwarf plant, fragrant and ‘Tete a Tete’, a yellow miniature.
There are many, many more varieties. Daffodils/narcissus are often sold in mixed collections or unnamed collections and these can be great bargains.
Care of narcissus/daffodils
Daffodils and narcissus are very easy to care for. Gardeners plant bulbs of narcissus/daffodils in fall. Look for large, plump bulbs, size will vary somewhat by species and variety. Double or triple nosed bulbs will give you 2 or 3 flowers instead of one. Plant the bulbs about twice as deep as they are long and about 6 inches apart, pointed or neck area up. Bulbs can be planted in full sun areas or areas under deciduous trees where they will get plenty of sun before the trees leaf out. They are tolerant of most soils, but the area must be well drained.
Do not use bone meal in the holes when planting as it attracts mice. Mice and squirrels rarely eat narcissus/daffodil bulbs as they are poisonous. But they can fling them out of the ground looking for bone meal or other bulbs. You can mix a granular slow release fertilizer in the soil you dug out of the hole and then refill over the bulbs. In a good location the bulbs will quickly multiply and fill the space.
Your bulbs will bloom in the spring anywhere from early spring just after the crocus to late spring depending on species and variety. When you see the bulbs peeking above ground sprinkle some slow release granular fertilizer for flowers on the ground around them, according to label directions. This will help the bulbs prepare next year’s blooms and multiply.
After blooming is done remove the bloom stalk back to the ground. Leave the leaves to yellow and die naturally. The plant needs the leaves to produce food to make next year’s flower. This is one reason that while daffodils may look nice blooming in a lawn early in spring, it’s not a good idea to plant them there. It can take a month or more for the leaves to die back after flowering finishes and you won’t want to leave the lawn un-mowed that long.
Deer and rabbits will not eat daffodils/narcissus as they are poisonous. The plants have few disease or insect problems. Occasionally a really cold snap after the plant has large buds or flowers may cause the flowers or buds to drop off or fail to open. In a confined bed the bulbs may get too crowded and may bloom less after a few years. Dig them up in the fall, remove some bulbs and then replant.
Caution: Daffodils and narcissus are poisonous. Do not allow pets or children to eat the bulbs, leaves or flowers. Do not allow pets to drink water that cut narcissus/daffodils are sitting in. Cut daffodils may cause the quick demise of other flowers that are put in the same water with them.
Suggestions for use
Plant your narcissus and daffodil bulbs in flower beds that contain plants like hosta and daylilies. They will bloom early and the foliage of the other plants will hide the yellowing foliage. Narcissus and daffodils look best in large drifts or clumps. In areas where mowing isn’t important, such as the edges of woodlands, they can be allowed to naturalize and spread. Small flowered species and miniature varieties look nice in rock garden beds.
If you like daffodils for cut flowers in the spring you may want to plant a large bed of them in some out of the way spot just for cutting. Smaller varieties will often survive winter and bloom when planted in large containers. You can plant early, mid and late spring blooming varieties for a prolonged spring floral effect.
There’s no reason any gardener should be without the cheerful flowers of daffodils and narcissus in the spring. If you failed to buy any bulbs to plant last fall your local garden store may have potted bulbs you can plant in the spring. Nothing says spring like the gold of a daffodil.
Here are some additional articles you may want to read.
How to prune spring flowering shrubs
How to grow hellebores
Shamrocks, four-leaved clovers and oxalis
You can read the authors weekly garden blog here.