Daffodils, narcissus, jonquils - what's in a name? Call them what you will, these messengers of spring offer bounteous bouquets and enliven the traditionally dull, damp days of April with a flurry of cheerful color. Hardy from growing zones 2 through 7, the daffodil is a mainstay of the spring garden, and adapts well to formal or informal plantings. In addition, daffodils require minimal maintenance and many varieties are fragrant as well as colorful.
Technically, daffodils, narcissus and jonquils are kissing cousins to one another, and there are subtle differences within the genus Narcissus that allow each to be classified differently. Daffodils normally have a large, erect flower, a long cup or trumpet, and no fragrance. Narcissus and jonquils have smaller flowers, and many times the flower heads tend to be pendulous rather than upright. The narcissus and jonquils are also fragrant. Their scent is light and sweet, and has been used as the "top-note" in many popular perfumes. All three share the same growth habits, bloom easily and multiply rapidly once they have been established in a bed.
There are differences in conformation that create the fifteen classes of daffodils that exist. There are large cups, small cups, split cups, doubles, three-headed (triandrus), and miniature varieties included in those classifications. The color spectrum for daffodils includes white, golden yellow, apricot pink, deep orange, and more recently, chartreuse / lime green. Many varieties are bicolors: Salome boasts a pure white perianth and a large cup whose base is orange and that fades to sunrise yellow at its outer edge. Sinopel sports a lime green perianth and a dainty bright orange cup. The ability to mix and match colors and shapes is what makes the daffodil one of the most versatile plants in terms of garden design.
Like other bulbs, daffodils enjoy a location that receives at least four hours of sun a day during the growing season, soil that is loose and friable but not nitrogen-rich, and soil that drains well. To start a new bed, till the soil well, add peat moss, well-rotted compost and gypsum if needed in order to enhance tilth and aid drainage. All bulbs need additional potash, so incorporate a standard ?bulb food? or bone meal into the planting soil prior to placement. Do not place any fertilizer near the bulb itself; the nitrogen could easily burn the bulb.
Choose bulbs that are large and firm, as they will produce the largest, best quality flowers. Plant the bulbs in the fall six to eight inches deep (or twice the height of the bulb for miniatures) and six inches apart. Make sure the nose of the bulb (the pointed end) faces up. Cover the bed with 2 to 4 inches of mulch after the ground has frozen. Daffodil bulbs need to be chilled (not frozen) for ten to twelve weeks in order to bloom. In the midwest or north, this is easily achieved during the winter. Southern gardeners need to store their bulbs in the refrigerator during the winter, and then plant them outside in late January.
All bulbs are like camels, and the bulb itself contains an embryonic flower and food reserves. Deadheading daffodils after the flowers are spent and allowing the foliage to continue growing is one way in which the bulbs renew their energy reserves. Humans can help this process as well. Once the foliage emerges in the spring, feed monthly with a water-soluble "bloom booster" fertilizer, and continue fertilizing monthly even after the flowers are spent.
Daffodils are prolific bloomers, and also prolific dividers. Beds should be divided when the flower quality diminishes, which is usually every three to four years. Cull any bulbs that have evidence of rot or insect damage, and separate the smaller bulbs from their "mother." These can be replanted, but may take another seven years to achieve blooming size.? Refresh the bed with additional compost and bone meal before replanting the bulbs.
A low-maintenance alternative for daffodil planting is naturalization. Essentially, the daffodil bulbs are planted in a random pattern throughout the yard. For this method, use a bulb planter to punch 6" holes in the turf, and drop the bulb in, nose up. Replace the turf. Routine fall lawn fertilization also fertilizes the bulbs. Naturalized bulbs make excellent ground covers in wooded areas, as their bloom cycle is completed before the trees leaf out fully. Naturalized bulbs multiply and create small clumps throughout the planting area. As in more formal beds, the clumps should be divided when the flower quality diminishes.
Daffodils are surprisingly pest-free. The bulb itself is poisonous, so the usual critter suspects - chipmunks and squirrels - leave it alone. However, deer can sometimes be a problem. For areas in which deer believe the garden is a trip to the buffet, gardeners need to use varieties that are marked as ?deer proof.?
What is most likely to damage daffodils is perpetually wet soil. Bulbs in general don?t care for wet feet, so avoid planting in low-lying areas or around downspouts, near ponds, etc. Bulbs that are bruised or damaged may also end up rotting, so these need to be thrown into the compost pile.
Daffodils adapt to formal arrangements, such as the wide swaths established at Keukenhof Gardens in Holland, or to informal situations. Many early blooming varieties are excellent for naturalizing in wooded areas. Daffodils also are excellent filler for planting in a bed of perennials, such as daylilies; as the perennials begin to sprout, their foliage masks the dying foliage of the daffodils.
Daffodils make excellent cut flowers and table arrangements created with a jumble of daffodils, hyacinths and sprigs of flowering shrubs or trees forced into bloom are the essence of spring glory. Daffodils exude a substance that is toxic to other plants, however, so place the daffodils in a separate vase of water and floral food for a day before arranging with other plant material.
The "darling daffodils" of Wordsworth's day are still popular, and their carefree nature allows even the most brown-thumbed gardener to have one season of golden success. For small spaces or large expanses that need a splash of spring pizzazz, daffodils are an answer to every gardener's prayer.