Spring has sprung: here comes the daffodil

By Glennis Byron
March 29, 2023
Filed in Flowers
8 minutes

She wore her yellow sun-bonnet,

She wore her greenest gown;

She turned to the south wind

And curtsied up and down

She turned to the sunlight

And shook her yellow head,

And whispered to her neighbour:

‘Winter is dead’.

A.A. Milne, ‘Daffodowndilly’

It’s often said that snowdrops are the first sign of spring. Wishful thinking, I fear. Snowdrops bloom in January and February, that’s winter for most of us in the northern hemisphere, and their appearance is all too often the signal for temperatures to plummet and the biggest snow dump of the year.

It’s the appearance of the daffodil that tells us spring has sprung. There are few gardening moments as good as when the first daffodil opens. It’s the reason the daffodil is associated with hope and new life and resurrection. Like the east wind in Mary Poppins, it tells us that ‘something is brewin’ and ’bout to begin’. Daffodils are joyful flowers; it’s no wonder they are particularly loved by children, and appear in many old nursery rhymes under the archaic name daffodilly or daffodowndily. The first daffodil of spring is a reason for celebration, for bringing out a bottle of your best sparkly.

Mother Goose, The Original Volland Edition (1915), edited by Eulalie Osgood Grover and illustrated by Frederick Richardson

Development of the daffodil

Perhaps even more than the rose, the daffodil is a quintessentially English flower. According to botanist John Parkinson in his Paradisus in sole, the first book in English to focus on the ornamental rather than the medicinal uses of plants, there were already close to a hundred varieties of daffodils in English country gardens by 1629. These include such oddly named varieties as the great yellow Spanish bastard daffodil, the red Indian daffodil, and the hairy purple ringed daffodil. But despite being championed by Parkinson, it remained a flower of the countryside and was not fashionable with the elite or indeed with the horticultural world. Very little hybridisation was done – perhaps because it takes about five years for a daffodil to flower from seed – until the nineteenth century.

This was a crucial time in the history of the daffodil, and not because Wordsworth – nicking an idea from his sister Dorothy’s journal – wrote that poem, sending endless streams of tourists scurrying to the Lake District in search of daffodils dancing in the breeze. All Wordsworth’s poem did was emphasise the idea of the daffodil as a humble wild flower, not so appealing in an age increasingly obsessed with the new exotics like orchids being imported from throughout the empire – and by an unfortunate craze for colourful and regimented bedding.

Wordsworth’s daffodil: Narcissus pseudonarcissus

What was more important for the daffodil was the increasing interest in hybridisation, and the man who was primarily responsible for making the daffodil fashionable was Glaswegian Peter Barr (1826-1909), a Govan nurseryman who began to collect and hybridise the old forms, and came to be known as the Daffodil King. Something of a character (as his appearance might suggest), Barr set off on a seven-year world tour at the age of 73 in search of new daffodils.

Peter Barr, the Daffodil King from Govan

While there was never a daffodil equivalent of tulip mania, the work of Barr and other nurserymen led to something of a rush on the new hybrids. At the start of the twentieth century, the now ubiquitous and oft-despised ‘King Alfred’ fetched ten pounds per bulb, while three bulbs of ‘Will Scarlet’, when introduced in 1898, sold for one hundred pounds, now the equivalent of about sixteen thousand.

Today there are over 32,000 cultivars on the RHS’s International Daffodil Register spread among thirteen divisions. The daffodil still appears to be popular, given the numerous gardens open for Daffodil Days and the various Daffodil Walks.

Some of the first daffodils to come up this year in my garden, including the tazetta ‘Avalanche’, the miniature ‘Sailboat’, and an unknown large cupped daffodil that was already here when we arrived (possibly ‘Ice Follies’?)

In the garden

But I wonder if the daffodil’s popularity with home gardeners has faded. I don’t see all that many in the neighbourhood where we live now and this is a bit surprising. While our black-tailed deer are renowned throughout Vancouver Island for their indiscriminate appetites (and we have such a large population that the local council has introduced birth control) the daffodil is one of the few plants disdained by even the most ravenous Bambi. On top of that, daffodils seem to have very few bad habits. They are hardy, some even down to zone 3, they don’t attract pests or disease, and many will naturalise and multiply very quickly. And, of course, they provide a welcome splash of colour when the world still looks grim in early spring. Would seem to be an all-round winner.

Perhaps the problem is that they are so messy once they finish flowering, particularly those big daffodils in the Trumpet group with their horrid coarse leaves. While it is a good idea to deadhead, since any seedpods that form will take away energy that should be directed towards building up the bulbs, those leaves must be left to die back on their own. The foliage soaks up energy from the sun, building up the bulb for the following year, and shouldn’t be cut back until the leaves have turned yellow.

I remember in my maternal grandparents’ garden (Welsh, so they had to have daffs of course), my Taid used to tie the leaves into neat knots when they’d finished flowering. It looked rather odd, now I think about it. But even damaging the leaves can interfere with the feeding process so tidying is a bad idea too.

Because of this messiness, I’ve always thought that the large-flowered daffodils in particular look and work best in a woodland or meadow setting where they can grow as they please without us worrying at them. There’s just something wrong with trying to control daffodils in a regimented kind of way. Maybe that’s where the idea of throwing your bulbs and planting them where they land comes from.

We planted tons of Narcissus poeticus (left), the poet’s or pheasant’s eye daffodil, along the burn that ran through our property in Scotland, and just left them to get on with it, but I’m not so keen on doing that now I have a regular suburban sized garden. Fine if you’re happy with a wild garden, but that’s not really for me. I have planted an area with the Poet’s Daffodil out front where the deer browse, and these late flowering daffodils are just popping up now. It’s such a pure, simple flower, and beautifully fragrant – it’s even grown in Europe specifically for its essential oil – so in this case I’ll just put up with the temporary mess in this area.

If you can’t find a good place for them in the garden, daffodils can easily be grown in containers. You can even put them in plastic pots that can then be slipped into nicer pots for display, and then remove them and put them somewhere sunny but out of the way to die back in peace.

‘Sailboat’ is a delicate and subtle miniature

The miniature daffodils can far more easily be slipped into a garden: their leaves aren’t so much of a problem. I particularly like the fragrant ones like ‘Minnow’, ‘Baby Moon’, and ‘Thalia’ – which is very long lived and a great naturaliser – and my new favourite this year, ‘Sailboat’.

A simple dish of ‘Tête á Tête’, always one of the first miniatures to flower.

Narcissus as cut flowers

I like to have one area in which I plant daffodils close together in rows specifically for cutting, particularly the frilly fragrant heirloom doubles for which I have a weak spot, including older fragrant doubles like ‘Cheerfulness’ and ‘Winston Churchill’. I don’t think these varieties work all that well in the garden, but in pots or tucked away in a cutting garden they are just fine.

‘Replete’ (below left) may be my favourite, with its white petals and pinkish coral centre and its gorgeous scent. But I’m looking forward to seeing ‘White Lion’ (below right) a new one for me, and I’ve been searching for ‘Petit Four’ (top right), which looks almost scandalously extravagant. The lovely mixed collection of heritage doubles (top left) I got from Five Acres Flower Farm this year, and they are just gorgeous. While I’m not usually a fan of the frilly knickers school of gardening, for these beauties I make an exception.

Finally, a few points about harvesting daffodils

• I’ve heard it’s best not to cut your daffodils but instead to twist and snap the stem as far down as you can get. I haven’t seen any rationale given for this yet, though, so if anyone knows, I’d be interested to hear.

• If you harvest your daffodils when they are fully out, the vase life will be only a few days. For a longer vase life, pick when the spathe (the membrane that covers the bud) has split and become brown and papery, the bud feels soft, and colour shows.

• Daffodils emit a mucilage when they are cut and this can be harmful to other flowers, either by preventing them from absorbing water (as in the case of tulips) or by encouraging bacteria that causes a quick wilt (as in the case of roses). If you’re going to arrange them with other kinds of flowers, first leave them in water for 24 hours and then rinse them off before adding to your arrangement. Different varieties of narcissus have different levels of toxicity and, strangely, not every flower reacts badly: the mucilage has been shown to prolong the life of irises. I discovered no effect at all on the Chionodoxa and Scilla siberica  I mixed with some unconditioned miniature daffodils as an experiment (left). In fact, the daffodils started to wilt first. (The mucilage can also cause daffodil dermatitis in some people so you might want to wear gloves when dealing with them.)

• Don’t fill the vase; daffodils last longer in shallow water, and remember to change it every couple of days.

• Place in a cool spot away from heating vents, out of direct sunlight, and well away from any ripening fruit. Many (but not all) varieties of daffodils are very sensitive to the ethylene gas fruit releases that can age flowers prematurely. Here’s a possibly useful list showing how sensitive various kinds of flowers are to ethylene.

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