The narcissi tell us spring is here, irrespective of what an arbitrary calendar says.
We once went to the National Daffodil Show when it was held in our local town. Alas, despite trawling through my files, I can not find the photos I took to convey the nature of the show. It was beautifully staged and moderately spectacular – in a daffodil-y sort of way. It was also an interesting insight into how those who breed and show daffodils are on a different trajectory. Bigger was undeniably better, extraordinarily long stems topped with enormous flowers, split corollas galore, a lot of different colour combinations and novelty variants. These were blooms grown to be staged as cut flowers. The little dwarf and miniature types were confined to one very small and somewhat insignificant table.
Our interest in narcissi begins and ends with them as garden plants or naturalised in a meadow situation. I cut some simply for photos yesterday. Because we over-heat our house in winter, we don’t generally cut flowers to bring inside where they immediately wilt and die. And those big show daffodils don’t make good garden plants in our conditions. The heavy heads pull them over and heavy rain and spring wind knocks the blooms about too much.
We don’t have a single big King Alfred type often favoured by people wanting to planting swathes of daffodils. Amongst other things, they flower later in the season. We prefer the early flowering types because they are largely done and dusted before the narcissi fly are on the wing.
Our narcissi flower over a reasonable period of time and some are still to show any colour at all. While we probably have a respectable collection of named dwarf varieties (Tête-à-tête, Jetfire, x Odorus, Twilight, Beryl, Peeping Tom and others), many of those we grow are unnamed, controlled cyclamineus crosses that Mark and his father before him have done to increase numbers. It takes a lot of bulbs to naturalise around the garden and the plant budget here has never stretched to buying bulbs by the hundreds or even thousands needed to put on a good show. We could not afford to garden on the scale we do if we had to buy all the plants.
I have never unravelled the different narcissi groups in detail. We grow the hooped petticoats – N. bulbocodium – in lemon and the later flowering bright yellow but they are not my favourites. The bright yellow is showy but increases somewhat too readily, the lemon (citrinus) may need a bit more love than it gets here to flower well.
I love the look of Narcissus poeticus but it doesn’t love us so the best we can manage is the poeticus hybrid ‘Beryl’. We have some from the triandrus, jonquilla and tazetta groups but the reason why our collection is heavily dominated by cyclamineus types is because they are the best performers in our conditions. The ones with swept back petals are a particular delight for me.
It isn’t necessary to have big King Alfred types for meadow situations. I think our smaller dwarf ones are just as showy but we plant in clumps and drifts rather than scattered single bulbs and they flower before all the spring grass growth that would drown them. We need to get the timing right for mowing or strimming the meadow grass before the foliage comes through but otherwise, they are self-maintaining. And what a joy they are at this time of the year as the snowdrops of winter fade.
The bad news is that most daffodils sold commercially in this country are of the later flowering King Alfred type – big strong growers with big heads. The smaller growing ones are sometimes available in garden centres but you may have to search to find much of a range, or start raising your own from seed.