Spring Trumpets: Daffodils

A daffodil with white petals and a corona that is yellow at the bottom and has an apricot-colored rim.

The daffodil has many common names including jonquil, paperwhite or Easter lily. It is a member of the large amaryllis family, along with snowdrops, common onions and, of course, amaryllis. Native to Mediterranean regions, daffodils have been cultivated since ancient times, probably first by the Greeks. In fact, the daffodil gained its botanical name Narcissus from Greek mythology. Apparently, handsome Narcissus was so enamored with his reflection in a pool that he drowned trying to capture it. Another version states that Narcissus, after seeing his reflection, killed himself because he could not have the object of his desire. In both versions, his body disappears and all that is left is a nodding daffodil flower.

Daffodils with frilled  orange trumpets and white petals.

A daffodil bloom consists of two major elements: a corona in the center that looks like a trumpet and a surrounding ring of usually six overlapping petals. It is one of the most popular spring-flowering bulbs, besides the tulip, and demonstrates great variation in size, color and form.

In terms of dimension, daffodils range from cute miniatures with 1/2” flowers on short stems reaching no more than 2” to relative giants producing blooms of 5” in diameter on 2’ tall stems.

Blooms can be a single color or they can have differently colored petals and trumpets. Occasionally the trumpet’s rim is a third color. Although the typical hue is yellow, there are wide-ranging combinations from yellow-white, yellow-orange or rare yellow-pink to white-orange and white-pink. New additions to this color palette include red and lime green. A daffodil reveals its chameleon-like nature in its blossom, which often gradually changes its color as the flower matures. White bloomers, such as the old-time favorite ‘Mount Hood’, have a yellow tinge when they first open but gradually transform to pure white. The color change is most prominent in pink-flowered varieties, which usually start with yellow-orange coloring that gradually fades to pink.

There are more than 13,000 hybridized daffodil cultivars in existence and they are classified into 13 divisions based mostly on their blossom shape. Division 1 contains trumpet daffodils, which have coronas that are longer than their surrounding petals. Much shorter but wider are division 2’s large-cupped daffodils. Small-cupped daffodils belong to division 3. Division 4 consists of double daffodils that produce more than one set of petals. Narrow, rush-like leaves and up to six nodding flowers per stem is characteristic of triandrus daffodils belonging to division 5. Similarly, drooping blooms belong to the cyclamineus daffodils (division 6) but their flowers are solitary and the petals are strongly reflexed. Division 7’s jonquilla daffodils have tall narrow foliage and an overproduction of blooms (two to six flowers per stem). Having multiple flowers per stem is also characteristic of division 8’s tazetta daffodils, but the blooms tend to be small and the foliage is wider. Poet’s daffodils, belonging to division 9, have flat faces with pure white petals surrounding short yellow cups often rimmed with orange or scarlet. Division 10 is home to the most bizarre-shaped daffodils – the bulbocodium group. Their oversized trumpets dwarf the petals so much so that the blooms look as though they are lacking petals altogether. Members of division 11, split-cupped daffodils are also quite bizarre. They have relatively flat faces since their trumpets are replaced by cups that look like they were smashed against the petals. This group is farther divided into two categories based on the split-cup segment location versus petals: collar and papillon (butterfly) types. Division 12 contains all the remaining daffodils that do not fall into any of the other 11 categories. The last division (13) is reserved for daffodils distinguished solely by their Latin botanical names and includes all the species, wild forms and their hybrids.

A daffodil with white petals and pink-colored trumpet.

'Accent' daffodil belongs to the popular large-cupped group (division 2).

A daffodil with white petals and orange, ruffled trumpets.

Double daffodils (division 4) feature multiple petals but are virtually trumpet-less.

Bright yellow daffodils.

The cultivar ‘Golden Bells' is from the bulbocodium group (division 10).

Daffodil culture is relatively simple. Bulbs should be planted in early fall, preferably at least 4 – 6 weeks before the first hard frost. They need this time to establish a root system before winter’s arrival. The bulbs should be set (pointy tip up) at a minimum depth of approximately three times their diameter.

After daffodils bloom, they should be deadheaded (to avoid seed production) but their foliage should be left intact until it slowly fades away. This is critical because the leaves allow the bulbs to store energy for the following year’s flowers. Unfortunately, it takes weeks for the foliage to disappear and it is not an attractive stage. Tidy gardeners will find it difficult to resist the urge to cut back or tie up the leaves. The labor-intensive solution is to transplant the bulbs to an out-of-sight spot. Another option is the careful placement of shallow-rooted annuals that can mask the yellowing daffodil foliage.

Cream-colored double daffodils

These plants love full sun and, like sunflowers, always turn their faces toward it. If left in partial shade, they will bloom but not profusely. They are not fussy about soil and resist drought. As is the case with most plants, avoid overwatering, particularly during their summer dormancy. If their needs are met, these tough plants are long-lived and multiply easily. However, small or disappearing blooms are usually a sign of overcrowded clumps. Dividing the clusters is an easy solution, but should be done at the beginning of the dormancy period (after the foliage turns brown). You can later replant divided bulbs or store them in a cool, airy spot until planting time in September.

Daffodils are relatively disease and pest free. An exception is the narcissus bulb fly, which closely resembles a small bumblebee. The damage is done by its larvae, which burrow into the bulbs and feed on them.

Most daffodils have some degree of fragrance that ranges in intensity from mild to deep. Their amazing variety of scents includes sweet, citrusy, floral, fruity, spicy or even vanilla-like.

A stem of pale yellow daffodils

Another feature gardeners can appreciate is the fact that daffodil bulbs, foliage and blooms are not on the menu for deer, groundhogs, rabbits and squirrels. The entire plant has toxic qualities, especially the bulb. It contains potent substances that cause vomiting if ingested. Poisoning in humans, although rare, has occurred when daffodil bulbs have been mistaken for onions or leeks.

Daffodils make perfect cut flowers that can brighten up almost any indoor space with their lively colors and lovely perfume. Unfortunately, their stems release sap that is harmful to other plants. If you prefer to combine them with different blooms, an option is to leave the daffodils in a water-filled container for a couple of hours (or better overnight). Most of the sap gets released and you can then place them in a container with fresh water that they can share with other plants.

It is easy to develop affection for cheerful daffodils. This spring, appreciate the brilliant tone of these trumpets.

Text and photos by Gina Dobrodzicka

Gina Dobrodzicka is a freelance writer and trained horticulturist who lives on Vancouver Island.

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