Tag Archives: dwarf narcissi

Tikorangi notes: narcissi, garden edgings and a happy plant breeder

The snowdrop season is all but over already. It is charming but brief. The narcissi, however, have a longer season, at least in part because we can grow a much wider range of species and hybrids. Yesterday felt like a winter’s day – the last gasp of winter, I hope – so I headed out to pick one each of the many different varieties in flower. We don’t grow many of the larger ones at all, preferring the charm of the littlies, the dwarf ones. Bigger may be better when it comes to magnolias – at least in our eyes – but daintiness wins with the narcissi. Most of these are named varieties though Mark is also raising cyclamineus seedlings to build up numbers for planting out and to get some seedling variation within them. The cyclamineus are the ones where the petal skirt sweeps back, sometimes completely reflexed, giving them a slightly startled appearance. He was intending to plant many of these down in the park but hadn’t got around to it so offered them to me for the new grass garden.

Drifting dwarf narcissi through the new grass garden. Camellia Fairy Blush hedge and Fairy Magnolia White edge the garden on both long sides. 

I have now compromised the big, bold, chunky planting in waves that is the hallmark of the new grass gardens by drifting hundreds of dainty, dwarf narcissi through them – though far enough out to escape being swamped by the large plants, for several years at least. It adds seasonal interest to an area that will not come alive again until later in spring.

Informal bark edging and bark and leaf mulch define the garden area

After much consideration as to how we wanted to complete the grass garden with regard to edging, mulch and path surfaces, we have gone for the casual, organic and local options. As soon as I started to load in the wood and leaf mulch that a local arborist delivered, I realised that the beds would need an edging to hold the mulch from spilling over. My idea of a seamless transition between bed and path was not going to work. We have pine bark to hand – left over from getting the firewood out from a fallen pine tree so I am constructing small edges out of that. It lasts for many years. The paths are still bare earth (we will probably use granulated bark on those) but as soon as I made the edgings and laid the mulch, it took on the appearance of a garden. It is a casual look but one that sits easily with us with the benefit of being low cost and, as Mark keeps saying, the use of organic materials adds carbon to the soils.

I am laying the mulch on fairly thickly – around a forefinger in depth which I measured to be about 7cm. Because it is fluffy, it will compact to less than that but if I see any weeds coming through, I can top it up.

Fairy Magnolia White – not only a beautiful flower form but a very long flowering season, beautiful velvety buds, good foliage and perfume

Mark is a quiet man, not given to blowing his own trumpet, but sometimes I hear him murmur a comment of deep contentment at a plant he has bred and named. So it was this week as we looked at the avenue of Fairy Magnolia White and Camellia Fairy Blush. “I picked White because it had a pretty flower,” he said. And it does. In a world of floppy white and cream M. doltsopa flowers, Fairy Magnolia White stands out with its beautiful star form. There were a lot of very similar sister seedlings to choose from in that cross and as a breeder, he always worries whether he picked the best one. I think he finally decided that he had indeed chosen the best which is just as well, when you think about it, because he will only ever name and release one of that cross

Camellia Fairy Blush also has a long flowering season, drops its spent flowers cleanly and clips well

Camellia Fairy Blush, planted as a hedge beneath the two avenues of Fairy Magnolia White, is also a continuing source of satisfaction and delight to us, even if it is a constant reminder of a missed commercial opportunity. It was the first camellia he ever named and sold. Back in those days, protecting a plant as our intellectual property was not even on the radar and now Fairy Blush is sold widely throughout the world and few know that it originated here and was Mark’s selection. We have even seen it branded overseas with other nursery names but we know it is ours. That is life and it is a very good camellia and continues to be a source of pride and pleasure to the breeder.

Fairy Magnolia White and a very blue spring sky

A host of golden narcissi

Some narcissi are better than others when it comes to naturalising. We are having some success with the cyclamineus types.

Some narcissi are better than others when it comes to naturalising. We are having some success with the cyclamineus types.

Is there any plant more evocative of spring than daffodils? They have been cultivated for eons, though many gardeners don’t realise how varied they can be. There is a lot more to the daffodil than the King Alfred types and the modern hybrids, though these are what are most commonly found for sale in garden centres, King Alfred being the handsome, large, pure yellow, classic daffodil.

‘I shall decode them this week,’ I thought. Firstly, daffodils are just the common name for narcissi. And there I stopped. There is a wealth of information around about narcissi if you want the technical details. But when there isn’t even widespread agreement as to how many actual species there are – maybe up to 60 or maybe not anywhere near that – and when separate groups have been introduced instead to classify the family, it is not a tidy little family tree to summarise. This is a plant that has lent itself to extensive hybridising since the days when Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection.

 Left to right: All dwarf varieties. N. bulbodium citrinus (the bright yellow form flowers later in the season), N. cyclamineus (or close to that species with its fine form and swept back skirt), ‘Twinkle’ showing its cyclamineus genes. Fourth along is ‘Twilight’ which we regard as an exceptional performer with a long flowering season, comparable to the world renowned ‘Tete a Tete’ to its right. Finally are the first two flowers to open on what we think is ‘Jetfire’.

Left to right: All dwarf varieties. N. bulbodium citrinus (the bright yellow form flowers later in the season), N. cyclamineus (or close to that species with its fine form and swept back skirt), ‘Twinkle’ showing its cyclamineus genes. Fourth along is ‘Twilight’ which we regard as an exceptional performer with a long flowering season, comparable to the world renowned ‘Tete a Tete’ to its right. Finally are the first two flowers to open on what we think is ‘Jetfire’.

In terms of narcissi as garden plants, basically the wider range of different types you can grow, the more you can extend the flowering season. We have been enjoying them since early July and the last to flower will be in mid October. All I did to get the line-up photos this week was to head out to the garden on Sunday. In a few weeks, I would be picking different varieties for such photographs. We do try and keep them in separate clumps around the place to separate them, but that is how we choose to plant. There is nothing against mixing and mingling.

The varieties that don’t set seed (in other words they are sterile) flower for much longer than their more fertile cousins. This is the secret behind both Tete a Tete and Twilight, as shown in the photo.

Narcissus ‘Beryl’ has yet to open her flowers this season but is another reliable performer amongst the dwarf narcissi.

Narcissus ‘Beryl’ has yet to open her flowers this season but is another reliable performer amongst the dwarf narcissi.

Where bulbs have stopped flowering, there are several possible causes. The most likely is the dreaded bulb fly which I have written about before. The grubs eat the bulbs from the inside out. Don’t ever let your clumps get so crowded that they push each other out of the pot or ground. There is no point in making it even easier for the offending narcissi fly. Shallow pots are not best suited to narcissi. Laying mulch on top of the bulbs as you wait for the foliage to die down can also help. Other reasons for poor flowering may be too much shade, cutting off the foliage too early the previous season (leave it for at least 6 weeks after flowering), wet ground, too much nitrogen fertiliser or congested, overcrowded clumps that need to be lifted and divided. Some varieties are much better than others at naturalising and being left to their own devices in paddocks or long grass situations but sooner or later, most will respond well to some attention.

If you like the novelty types with pink or apricot colours, split coronas (that is the trumpet bit), full frilled flowers and the like, then you need to look to the modern hybrids. We were given a whole collection of these a few years ago. We weren’t sure what to do with them so we planted them in the veg garden where they flowered well. We looked at them for two seasons and then dug up the lot and gave them away. When it comes to bulbs, we prefer the simplicity of the smaller varieties closer to the originating species. Charm over showiness.

Left to right: An old, scented double variety often found in paddocks and around homesteads even today. The closest bloom I could find to a King Alfred type in our garden this week is this larger flowered cultivar with classic trumpet (corona) and skirt but in lemon. Third along is what is often called a jonquil with its delicious scent, but it is actually a N. tazetta hybrid which we think is ‘Soleil d’Or’. Next to it is one of my favourites, the fragrant N x ‘Odorus’ which is believed to be a natural jonquilla hybrid (crossed with psuedonarcissus). Finally on the right is ‘Peeping Tom’, rated a dwarf variety though somewhat larger in size than most dwarves. It is a remarkably reliable performer.

Left to right: An old, scented double variety often found in paddocks and around homesteads even today. The closest bloom I could find to a King Alfred type in our garden this week is this larger flowered cultivar with classic trumpet (corona) and skirt but in lemon. Third along is what is often called a jonquil with its delicious scent, but it is actually a N. tazetta hybrid which we think is ‘Soleil d’Or’. Next to it is one of my favourites, the fragrant N x ‘Odorus’ which is believed to be a natural jonquilla hybrid (crossed with psuedonarcissus). Finally on the right is ‘Peeping Tom’, rated a dwarf variety though somewhat larger in size than most dwarves. It is a remarkably reliable performer.

While we all know of Wordsworth’s host of golden daffodils, less well recorded is the fact that he was out walking with his sister, Dorothy when they came upon the sight. Her record of the event did not reach such legend status but has its own charm:

“When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever dancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy highway.”

Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journal Thursday, 15 April 1802

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Plant Collector: Narcissus bulbocodium citrinus “Pandora”

The first narcissus of the season - N. bulbocodium citrinus 'Pandora'

The first narcissus of the season – N. bulbocodium citrinus ‘Pandora’

Always the first little narcissi to flower in winter, these lemon hoop petticoats are pretty as a picture at the moment. I guess they gained their common name because they resemble those wired underskirts from times past. The bright yellow bulbocodiums flower later in the season. In contrast, the citrinus are very early, coming out with the snowdrops. These are easy bulbs to grow. In fact this clump is naturalised in hard conditions where our gravel driveway meets an elevated concrete path – which is why the flowers show some splash and wear. There is no mollycoddling involved with them but they do need good drainage and full sun. N. bulbocodium is native to the south of France, Portugal and Spain so will occur naturally in relatively hard conditions. Given that the foliage is distinctly grassy in appearance, you just need to make sure you are not mowing it off in the early stages.

Daffodils go far beyond the common big King Alfred types and we like a range of them so we can have them in flower for many months. We prefer earlier flowering ones overall because they are generally finished by the time the dreaded narcissi fly is on the wing. It lays its eggs in the crown of the foliage and each bulb becomes home to one fly larvae (big, fat creamy grub) which spends a year sustaining itself by eating the bulb from the inside out, only to metamorphose and repeat the cycle. A breeder told me that narcissi only need 65 days of growth to build up strength in the bulb for next year’s flowering so you can remove foliage early if you need to beat the fly. We also favour the littlies, the dwarf varieties, which are much more compact and showy in the garden.

Bulbocodiums increase readily by division and some will set viable seed.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.