Reflecting on narcissus

Many people, bored by common-or-garden varieties of daffodils, may have written off this golden bulb but there is so much more to them


It’s daffodil time. By which I mean that now is the very best time to plant the bulbs of this lovely spring-flowering plant (more properly known as narcissus) in the ground, so that they can establish the sort of sturdy, vigorous root system that will allow them to be at their most beautiful next year.

If you’ve somehow fallen out of love with these flowers (perhaps as a result of growing some of the over-bred kinds), then think again.

A tour of some of The Netherlands’ spring gardens earlier this year reminded me (a lapsed daffodil lover) of what a versatile and valuable genus of plants narcissus are; there truly is a daffodil suitable for every plot, whether that be a tiny stone trough or several rolling acres.

In Hortus Bulborum, the Dutch bulb garden in Limmen, northern Holland, that’s home to a botanical collection of several thousand different cultivars, species and varieties of bulbous plants, including 1,000 different kinds of daffodils, I saw the lovely Narcissus ‘Rip Van Winkle’. This miniature, Irish double daffodil dates from the Victorian era and appears throughout March and April. Its multi- petalled golden flowers look just like fallen stars.

Also growing in this remarkable garden are many daffodils produced by distinguished Northern Irish breeders – such as Brian Duncan, Guy Wilson and Frank Harrison – who have been responsible for introducing a treasure-trove of garden-worthy varieties into cultivation.

On that same trip I saw daffodils flowering in profusion in the gardens of Keukenhof, either growing in the ground alongside velvet-purple violas, chionodoxas, hyacinths, scillas, early tulips and anemones (including the excellent, large-flowered A. ‘White Splendour’) or planted en-masse in handsome wicker containers.

But the Dutch garden that I remember best for its glorious display of daffodils belongs to the designer Jacqueline van der Kloet. Situated in Weesp, south-east of Amsterdam, in the grounds of an old fortress, the spring gardens of De Theetuin (The Tearoom) are filled with the kinds of plant combinations that have you reaching for your camera and notebook.

Among the stand-out daffodils that I saw there is one known as N. ‘Sailboat’, a long-flowering, fragrant, multi-flowered variety with ivory-white petals and the palest yellow cups, which reaches a height of 30-35cm.

Another is N. ‘Jenny’, a cyclamen-type daffodil with the graceful, reflexed petals so characteristic of that particular group. Pale-flowered and elegant, this RHS GM winner reaches a height of 30-40cm.

Van der Kloet grows these flowers in soft drifts alongside other spring-flowering bulbous perennials such as the inky-violet grape hyacinth Muscari latifolium (another standout plant) and Chionodoxa luciliae ‘Alba, a white-flowered form of the usually blue-flowering ‘Glory of the Snow’, as well as with the yellow millet grass, Milium effusum ‘Aureum’, forget-me-nots, and the semi-evergreen oxlip, Primula elatior.

The result is an elegantly beautiful and richly atmospheric spring garden, filled with the sorts of daffodils that are about as far away from the charmless, heavy-headed gaudiness of some of the modern show-bench types as you could possibly get.

So how to grow them? While these long-lived bulbous beauties are generally easy to cultivate, there are a few key points worth keeping in mind.

The main daffodil season runs from February to May (even earlier for those grown in pots under glass), so try choosing different varieties so that as one finishes flowering, another takes its place.

For example, the early and excellent cyclamineus-type known as N. ‘February Gold’ (yellow flowers, 30cm, February- March), followed by N. ‘Thalia’ (multi- headed white flowers, 40cm, late March-April) and N. ‘Hawera’ (multi- stemmed, scented lemon flowers, 20cm, April-May).

While daffodils like full sun or light shade, they won’t thrive in deep shade, so plant them where they’ll get at least a half-day’s worth of sunlight.

Plant at a depth of three times the height of the bulb (pointed end up), roughly 10cm apart and (if in the ground) in naturalistic drifts, into fertile, moist but free-draining soil.

Most daffodils will spread over time, so keep this in mind if you are planting into lawns as regards the mowing regime (choose taller varieties for long grass, such as the late-flowering, fragrant pheasant’s eye narcissus, N. poeticus var. recurvus (white/orange,35cm, May) and N. ‘Actaea’ (white/yellow, 45cm, late April).

Avoid planting into poorly drained or freshly manured soil, which will make the bulbs rot. The miniature varieties in particular appreciate sharp drainage.

Nip back faded flowers but don’t cut back foliage until it has completely yellowed. Congested clumps will eventually stop flowering; using a garden fork (never a spade), divide them in late June-July.

Finally, take great pleasure from the fact that the small amount of time, effort and money that you spend on growing them will be repaid in spades; the daffodil bulbs you plant this year will flower each spring for many years to come, as will their many offspring.

See, and

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