By Ben Whitacre
Photo by Flickr/Sagamore James
Naturalize daffodils, and they may still be blooming when 23rd-century archaeologists poke around your former spading ground to figure out how people from our era lived. Like most carefree plants, you really never have to do anything for the best time-tested varieties of Narcissus, which have thrived for over 200 years in some colonial sites.
For members of the “cult of daffodil,” this sunny flower is more than a reliable harbinger of spring. Thanks to its immediately recognizable floral structure — six petals capped with a corona that could be compared to a royal crown or a jaunty top hat — it’s the self-crowned monarch of the plant kingdom. The shortlist of famous members of the cult of daffodil includes Oscar Wilde, Ramesses II, and Lady Gaga (who wore a dress made of the flower). In her poem “Daffodil,” Irish poet and novelist Agnes Romilly White describes the daffodil as having “A little queenly head, most meet / A royal crown to wear; / A little queenly queen, most sweet, / With sun-gold in her hair.”
Despite the love daffodils have been receiving for millennia, there are still some simple tricks that cultists and casual growers alike can learn to get even more out of a flower that rarely demands anything.
(Always) In Bloom
Daffodils have so many virtues that gardeners rarely complain about their alleged single-blooming nature. Those who want a longer flowering season plant cultivars with different bloom times for a continuous sequence. But, in fact, some daffodils do have the potential to rebloom. While at least one hybridizer has claimed to produce regularly remontant daffodils, they’re not readily available, so it’s worth trying to seduce repeat blooms out of the classics.
‘Barrett Browning’ doubled. The doubled petals and distorted or absent corona are typical in rebloom. Occasionally, the corona turns into more-refined petaloids. Photo by Ben Whitacre
First, select vigorous cultivars that readily spread. They need to be the earliest outdoor bloomers, such as ‘Ice Follies,’ ‘Barrett Browning,’ and ‘February Gold.’ Prepare a site with full sun exposure and no shade. Mulch and fertilize. If interplanted with more-demanding flowers, such as roses, Narcissus can piggyback off the fertilizer, mulch, and irrigation you provide them. Allow the daffodils to get established for several years, until they’ve formed dense colonies.
To get an extended bloom, it’s necessary to harvest every single bloom in a clump, either as soon as it opens or just before. Cut the stem close to the ground. Be careful to avoid damaging the foliage. In my experience, following these guidelines alone can result in at least some spotty repeat blooms. But two additional conditions seem to put rebloom over the top: chronic rain, and a balmy February followed by a wintry March. Don’t hope for flooding and late cold snaps, but if you can simulate one or both conditions without interfering with full sun exposure, it’s worth trying. At worst, you’ll have lots of flowers for indoor arrangements instead of outdoors. At best, you’ll have continuous blooms from the first flowering stem until the foliage turns yellow.
‘Ice Follies,’ an old cultivar that has a light coffee- and NyQuil-like scent. Photo by Ben Whitacre
Despite the obvious benefits of a rebloom, the new flowers may drain energy that would otherwise be stored in the plant for the following year. I haven’t had an issue with daffodils putting on a lesser floral display following a season with several flushes of flowering, but I suspect they didn’t spread as much as they might’ve otherwise. This could be good or bad, depending on the garden.
The Prophet Muhammad put himself in good company when he reportedly said, “Narcissus is food for the soul.” It’s good that daffodils nourish the spirit, since they’re poisonous to the body — though their toxicity is one reason they’re so useful in a landscape. Would-be garden partiers, such as deer, can’t stomach them. But neither can would-be vase mates, such as tulips and roses. Cut daffodil stems exude a mucilage that causes other flowers to wilt prematurely by preventing them from absorbing water. There’s an easy fix for this problem, according to florists: Thoroughly rinse the stems of daffodils before mingling them with other flowers. But there’s more to it. Daffodil mucilage actually makes some cut flowers, such as irises, last longer. Either way, change daffodil water often, even if they’re not sharing a vase with other flowers. Old daffodil water has a particularly foul odor.
A double cultivar with filaments that mutated into neat petaloids. Photo by Flickr/Julie Corsi
Some experts also claim that daffodils have a noxious relationship with plants of different genera when in the same garden. Allegedly, the bulbs and roots are toxic enough to weaken the growth of neighboring plants. However, the effect seems to be negligible, and concerns should be balanced against landscape value and the daffodil’s ability as a mild deterrent of herbivores.
A Pampered Plant
The most iconic photos of daffodils show great drifts of them spreading through grassy fields in the English countryside. Drive around during peak bloom anywhere they grow, and you’ll likely see more Narcissus sprawling across fields than in garden beds.
This leads to one of the most common maintenance problems for daffodils. In a garden bed, daffodils can be allowed to bloom, photosynthesize, wilt, and die with no human intervention. But daffodils growing in a lawn cause a dilemma: Mow them right after they bloom, and prevent them from generating energy for next year; or do nothing, and let weeds and grass become unsightly. Both premature mowing and excessive weed competition can cause daffodils to perform poorly.
Photo by Flickr/Andrew Wilkinson
Thankfully, there are a few maintenance options for daffodils growing in a yard. Convert the daffodil clumps into semiformal beds; clip the grass and weeds around the daffodils by hand; or use herbicides. The latter option requires the most careful consideration. Researchers at Washington State University studied herbicide use in commercial daffodil fields with mixed results. All preemergent weedkillers applied during the daffodil growing season caused some damage to daffodils, but overall the results were better for both bulb and flower production than if weeds hadn’t been controlled. Gardeners who object to herbicides can try corn gluten as a preemergent first.
No More Botany Monotony
There’s one more curious result of persuading daffodils to rebloom: All subsequent flushes are double-petaled, or in some way mutated. Sometimes, they come back relatively refined, with doubled petals and a corona that becomes petaloid. Other times, the flowers return without all of their parts or any coloring. Often, the corona virtually disappears. Sometimes, there’s nothing but a couple of oddly placed petals that look more like mangled butterfly wings than a flower.
Daffodils in a driveway. For best results, grow these sunny flowers in your garden or in semiformal beds. Photo by Flickr/Bonita de Boer
One of the pleasures of reblooming is the random, exciting variety you can get from one planting of a single cultivar. Many gardeners have mixed feelings about commercial double-flowered daffodils, in part because they have a long reputation for being unreliable and short-lived, a point that the English herbalist John Gerard made in 1597. But when using single-petaled specimens, the doubling effect applies only to the second and subsequent flowerings in a season. The first bloom the following year will return to the original form.
For gardeners, hacking into the daffodil’s growing cycle to extend the flowering season is a great way to add interest, especially to older plantings that’ve become overly familiar. For botanists, the apparently unstudied mechanism for doubling during rebloom could provide some fresh insights into floral morphology.
Ben Whitacre is a frequent contributor to Ogden Publications magazines, including Mother Earth Gardener and Grit. He gardens in central Virginia. He rustled his first daffodil from a neighbor’s garden when he was 4.
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