Delightful Daffodils

Daffodils, jonquils, and narcissus are often mentioned interchangeably, with daffodil as the most commonly used non-scientific name. The English word “daffodil” is likely derived from asphodel, linked with wild daffodils in their native habitats of western Europe. When someone purposefully uses “narcissus” instead of “daffodil,” this nomenclature usually denotes the Mediterranean paperwhite narcissus, a popular holiday flower forced into bloom indoors in winter months. But according to the American Daffodil Society, Narcissus is the Latin botanical name for the genus of predominantly spring flowering perennial plants in the amaryllis family, Amaryllidaceae. The genus has ten to sixteen divisions depending on which botanist you ask. There’s also a wide range of opinions as to the number of species, which depend on hybridization. All narcissi have flowers with six petal-like tepals and a cup- or trumpet-shaped corona. Flowers are generally white and yellow but hybrids also feature orange and pink varieties.

Whatever the term used, no flower has received more poetic description than narcissi except the rose and the lily, often in poems by authors such as Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. Narcissus comes from the Greek word for “numbness” or narke, also the root of the word “narcotic.” Narcissus was well known in ancient civilization, both medicinally and botanically, formally described by Linnaeus in his Species Plantarum. Narcissus poeticus is certainly the first daffodil of legend. Narcissus poeticus is associated with poor, vain Narcissus, who was turned into an attractive flower, “white of petal and red of cup because of his habit of staring at his reflection in the water. The story was passed down by the poets.” Young Narcissus was handsome… and he knew it. The young man spurned the advances of the nymph Echo, who pined for him in the forests and valleys until only her voice was left. As punishment, the Goddess Nemesis led Narcissus to a pool of water where he encountered his own reflection. So enamored with his own beauty, he stared at his reflection for days. Eventually, he fell in and drowned, leaving flowers growing where he once sat. N. poeticus thrives in damp soil and naturalizes beautifully in tall grasses.

Another daffodil that flourishes along roadsides and in meadows is Narcissus pseudonarcissus. Also named the Lent lily, this flower is best known as the wild daffodil. It features a small yellow trumpet surrounded by a soft pale yellow ring of petals. Blooming in early to mid-spring, one flower per sturdy stem, this flower rises amidst strap-like gray-green leaves. Also perfect for naturalizing, N. pseudonarcissus brings bright swathes of color to woods and grasslands. Wild daffodils are native to meadows and woods in southern Europe and North Africa. Both wild and cultivated plants have naturalized widely and were introduced into the Far East prior to the tenth century.

Historical accounts suggest narcissi have been cultivated from the earliest times but became increasingly popular in Europe after the 16th century. The Royal Horticultural Society is an important promoter of narcissi, holding its first Daffodil Conference in 1884. The Daffodil Society, dedicated to cultivation of narcissi, was founded in the British Isles in 1898. By the late 19th century narcissi had become important commercially, primarily in the Netherlands. The American Daffodil Society, founded in 1954, publishes The Daffodil Journal quarterly, a leading trade publication. A century of breeding has resulted in thousands of varieties. Cultivars are available from general and specialist suppliers. Often sold as dry bulbs to be planted in late summer and autumn, daffodils are now an economically important ornamental plant. Breeders have developed daffodils with double, triple, and multiple rows and layers of segments. Many breeders concentrate on the corona (trumpet or cup), in terms of length, shape, and color. Today narcissi are popular as cut flowers and as ornamental plants in many private and public gardens. Narcissi tend to be long-lived bulbs, which propagate by division, but they are also insect-pollinated.

Several cultivars are recommended for our area:

‘Ice Follies’ is a large-flowered, early cultivar. These daffodils should be divided every three to four years to maintain vigorous blooms.


‘Ceylon’ is a bold, large-flowered early to mid-season cultivar.

Tazetta daffodils are short-cupped, sweetly fragrant, with multiple flowers (3 to 20) to a sturdy stem. Paperwhite narcissus belongs to this group. N. tazetta is also an exception to requiring cold temperatures to initiate flowering. ‘Geranium’ is commonly known as a tazetta jonquil. Like paperwhites which are forced indoors for holiday blooms, this narcissus is quite fragrant with several flowers on each stalk. It will tolerate more heat, and blooms later in the spring

Jonquil (Narcissus jonquilla) is a favorite mid-spring bloomer tolerating more heat and humidity. A native of Spain and Portugal, jonquils are sometimes called
narcissus or rush daffodils. These lovely blooms appear in shades of yellow or white, with some cultivars boasting orange or apricot-hued coronas. ‘Tete-a-tete’ is a popular jonquil cultivar, which will
naturalize to form a dense clump.

Pheasant’s eye (N. poeticus var. recurvus) is an old cultivar with creamy white petals and an orange cup. It is very late-blooming.
It’s also more tolerant of damp soils, so it will perform well in clay soils.

Cultural recommendations:
During September or October, purchase bulbs while supplies are good but wait to plant until cooler weather to prevent bulbs from rotting. Choose firm bulbs without mold or bruising. Store bulbs in a cool area below 60 °F until planting. Most bulbs require a 12- to 16-week chilling period to produce flowers. Many bulb suppliers sell bulbs that have already been given a chilling treatment. Coastal gardeners can ensure spring blooms by refrigerating bulbs in ventilated packages until planting. Avoid storing fruit near the bulbs since fruit-produced ethylene gas can prevent blooming. When bulbs do not receive enough chilling, they bloom close to the ground on very short stems.

Plant bulbs in late autumn or early winter in beds, in lawns, or around trees. Thanksgiving is perfect! Daffodils need good drainage. It’s best to plant where irrigation does not saturate the soil. Narcissi are well suited for planting under small thickets of trees, where they can be grouped as 6–12 bulbs. Cultivate bulbs in mass plantings for best display. Daffodils prefer six hours of sun when blooming, but the bulbs will need shade in the hot summer. Planting bulbs under deciduous trees will provide the right amount of sun for blooms and shade for dormancy throughout both spring and summer. They also grow well in perennial borders, especially in association with day lilies which begin to form their leaves as the narcissi flowers are fading. Unlike tulips, narcissi bulbs are not attractive to rodents and are sometimes planted near tree roots in orchards to protect them.

In the absence of a soil test, permanent bulb plantings should be fertilized using one of two methods. The first method is to mix a slow-release complete fertilizer according to label recommendations into the rooting area at planting in the fall. The second method is to mix bone meal in the rooting area at planting time with a quick-release fertilizer at the rate of 1 to 2 pounds of 10-10-10 per 100 square feet in the fall. Repeat the application of 10-10-10 as soon as shoots emerge in the spring. Amending and mulching with dry leaves provide excellent slow released elements that daffodils desire. Do not plant daffodils near heavy feeders like roses and daylilies.

After the blooms are finished, daffodils continue to grow and store food for a time, then die back and enter dormancy through the summer and fall. Leave their foliage to dry. The hardest part about being successful with spring-blooming bulbs is leaving them alone. Once blooms have faded, the foliage still has a job to do. Cells in those bright green leaves are preparing sugars to fuel the bulb’s growth. Don’t come along in the name of cleaning up and remove any of those leaves until they are senescing. That’s just the fancy word for fading or dying off. The leaves will turn yellow and flop over, signaling they are through with photosynthesis.

Plant summer-blooming perennials next to or in front of clumps of spring-blooming bulbs to provide interest and distraction from the fading leaves. Daylilies, oriental lilies, and gladioli will attract the eye away from fading foliage or even camouflage it a bit. Take care to give each plant adequate space so that the perennials are not smothering or completely outcompeting your spring bulbs.

Be aware that all Narcissus species contain the alkaloid poison lycorine, mostly in the bulb, but also in the leaves, and can be toxic to dogs and horses. It can irritate skin too, so wear gloves when handling.

For more information about growing spring-blooming bulbs, see HGIC 1155, Spring-Flowering Bulbs.