It's daffodil time

The familiar sunny-yellow daffodil. — Tim Hodson/Flickr

The familiar sunny-yellow daffodil. — Tim Hodson/Flickr

Few things are sweeter than a warm April day with the trees leafing out, the grass freshly greening and daffodils bobbing and nodding in the breeze.

It may not qualify as the very first flower of spring since the hellebores, crocuses and witch hazels already will have bloomed. But daffodils are the season’s first blossom of size and substance and soon they’ll be everywhere, trumpeting their cheerful message of spring’s return.

Daffodils are lovely in their radiant freshness, but they also have a very practical virtue -- permanence. Unlike the more vulnerable crocuses and tulips (often eaten by hungry critters), daffodils can be relied upon to return with the robins and bloom every spring for years on end.

The wily daffodil has a built-in defense against predation. Distributed throughout bulb, leaf and flower is a potent toxin that animals like squirrels, voles and chipmunk avoid. Even the deer leave daffodils alone.

Most daffodils slowly increase in number, gradually colonizing swaths of ground under high-branching trees or along the margins of lawns. It’s good to have a perennial this sturdy on hand to start the season off with a dose of pure satisfaction. The roses of June and the tomatoes of August should be this trouble-free.

Nearly everyone can summon up an image of the typical daffodil with a golden-yellow trumpet surrounded by a ring of six stiff petals. But the genus is far more diverse, including 25 species and more than 13,000 hybrids with forms that look nothing like the familiar kind. It’s this variety that fuels the collector’s itch and the competitor’s hope for blue ribbons in annual daffodil shows.

There are double daffodils frilly with petals, split cup types that look like hothouse flowers, miniature varieties with blossoms scarcely bigger than a quarter and “hoop petticoats” with funnel-shaped trumpets.

Pure yellow is just the beginning of the color range. There are bi-colors mixing white, yellow and vivid orange, pure white cultivars and others that sport peachy pink trumpets. If fragrance is your thing, aim for daffodils in the tazetta and jonquilla groups, which bear a cluster of small scented blossoms.

Daffodils are native to the Mediterranean region and were known to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians as early as 200 BC. They were transported to Britain by the Romans in the 1200s, but it wasn’t until much later that breeders became interested in improving them.

Fancier varieties have frilly trumpets and unusual colors. — Kris A/Flickr

Fancier varieties have frilly trumpets and unusual colors. — Kris A/Flickr

Only a few of the early varieties survive, but you can find some of these horticultural antiques at Old House Gardens , which carries some “pheasant eye” types dated to 1601. The early 20th century – 1900 through 1930 – saw an explosive growth of more than 6,000 hybrids and still stands as the Golden Age of daffodil breeding.

Don’t bother to ponder the distinction between a daffodil and a narcissus. They refer to one and the same flower, with narcissus representing the genus name and daffodil a corruption of “affodell,” an early common name.

These flowers are associated in lore with Narcissus, the self-involved Greek youth, and with the Furies, who used them to stun their enemies. (The Greek root word narke means “to stupefy.”) You’re probably safe from the Furies wrath, but please don’t eat the daffodils. Their toxic sap can cause dizziness, stomach upset and even convulsions.

Daffodils must be planted in autumn, since they need a period of cold to trigger bloom. Good drainage and a site in full or partial sun are the chief cultural requirements.

Freshly planted bulbs don’t need feeding but in subsequent seasons, a low-nitrogen fertilizer applied between November and February will boost the bloom count. Leave foliage in place until it fades to recharge the bulb for next year’s flowers.

April is a good time to become acquainted with the sunny, easy-to-grow daffodil in all of its variety. Take note of your favorites so you can expand your collection when bulbs become available in the fall. A “host of golden daffodils” is a poetic thing (thank you, William Wordsworth) and will get your spring off to the best possible start.

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. April 14 is a family-oriented Daffodil Day. For more information, call (908) 273-8787 or visit reeves-reedarboretum.org.

The Daffodil Project – For years now, 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 ny4p.org.

American Daffodil Society – This site has cultural information, a huge picture gallery, bulb sources and a calendar of daffodil festivals and shows. Visit daffodilusa.org.