It’s April at last and in the welcome awakening of a new, green landscape, daffodils reign supreme.
Here’s a flower familiar to everyone – or is it? Little children, grandmas, even grown men could probably identify the cheery yellow trumpets of the common daffodil. But within the genus Narcissus there are 13 divisions and roughly 25,000 named cultivars, some of them quite unlike the ordinary kind.
There are miniature flowers no bigger than a quarter, double daffodils with ruffles and flourishes, split cup types as exotic as an orchid and little “hoop petticoat” kinds with funnel-shaped trumpets. Some are trimmed in bright orange or even “pink,” although by my lights the color is really a peachy salmon.
I’ve been collecting daffodils for quite some time and have yet to meet one I didn’t like. Hardy, vigorous and practically indestructible, they laugh off late-season snows and bear up well under the heaviest April showers. Best of all, they aren’t eaten by any of the usual suspects – rabbits, deer and woodchucks.
Narcissus have a natural defense diffused throughout their leaves, blossoms and stems, a toxic alkaloid in crystalline form that animals avoid. Please don’t eat the daffodils yourself – stomach upset, dizziness and even convulsions may occur.
As a matter of fact, the potential for dire effects is embodied in their very name. You may know the Greek myth about Narcissus, a handsome young man so taken with his own reflection in a woodland pond that he became infatuated and wasted away in unrequited love.
But in an even earlier story, daffodils were emblematic of the Furies and used to stun and punish their enemies. Narcissus comes from the Greek word narke (stupor) or narkao (to be stupefied). Some say this effect was caused by the flower’s intoxicating fragrance, but I don’t see it. Only some species, chiefly the tazetta and jonquilla groups, are scented at all, and then rather mildly. Mostly, daffodils smell like spring rain.
In actual life, the most likely victims of the daffodil’s peculiar chemistry are other flowers that mingle with them in the vase. The milky sap that oozes from their stems can cause other flowers to wilt and shrivel. I still occasionally forget about this when I assemble spring bouquets until I am forcefully reminded the morning after. Killer daffodils -- they don’t play well with others.
If you need more evidence that daffodils have personality, consider their active sun worship. Like sunflowers, they are heliocentric, turning to face the sun as they track its daily passage through the sky. Try to keep this in mind if you plant daffodils along a path. It’s far better to have flowers looking up at you from the north side of a walk than to plant them on the south edge and have them facing resolutely away, giving you the cold shoulder.
Daffodils have only two downsides. The first is that their foliage has to remain in place after blooming to recharge the bulb for next season. You mustn’t cut it and shouldn’t braid it or tuck it into ponytails with rubber bands (this being a hobby for people with too much time on their hands). The leaves, unfortunately, die a long, lingering and unattractive death, lasting nearly until June.
You can deal with this by concealment, planting dafs among or behind other plants that will grow up and disguise their fading foliage. Daylilies are the classic companion plant, since their rushy foliage is similar to the daffodil’s own. But in deer country, this is impractical, since deer will make a hungry beeline for your daylily friends.
I use clumps of old-fashioned bleeding hearts to draw attention away from spent daffodils in shady areas along the woods. Otherwise, I plant my dafs in out-of-the-way spots where the foliage won’t annoy me and cut the blossoms to enjoy inside.
The other irritation comes with daffodils that refuse to bloom – putting the foliage front and center all season long. This can be caused by too little sun or too much high-nitrogen fertilizer, but more commonly it’s because the daffodils have split and multiplied, becoming too crowded to bloom properly.
The cure is to dig them up and divide them, and this can most easily be done “green,” while the plants are actively growing. Face it – you’d be hard pressed to remember exactly where the bulbs are once the leaves fade away.
I think of daffodil season as the true first act of spring, a span of two or three weeks when these cheerful flowers hold the stage while the rest of nature pulls itself together. A “host of golden daffodils” is a cheery thing, the very stuff of poetry.
Where to see daffodils:
Reeves- Reed Arboretum, 165 Hobart Ave., Summit. Visit during April to see tens of thousands of daffodils in bloom in the Daffodil Bowl, a depression carved by glaciers during the last ice age. Special “Daffodil Day” activities are planned for April 24. For more information, call 908-273-8787 or see Daffodil Day.
The Daffodil Project – For nearly 10 years, daffodils have been planted throughout New York’s boroughs in remembrance of those lost in the World Trade Center tragedy. Nearly 4 million are now blooming every April. For details and locations, see the Daffodil Project.
American Daffodil Society – This site has cultural information, a huge picture gallery, bulb sources and a calendar of daffodil festivals and shows. Browse the gallery to view unusual varieties. See the society
Commenting procedures have been improved by Squarespace, my web host. You should be able to simply enter a name (any name) before commenting. Please let me know if this is working better. I welcome your comments and feedback. -- Valerie